The balance beam is four inches wide. Austere. Hard as a rock. It has little pistons that absorb a slight amount of shock when a gymnast lands, but only the most powerful women can really make it work for them. Some day, Jessica Smith, University of Utah senior gymnast and civil-engineering student, would like to redesign that apparatus to make it more efficient for the average gymnast.

Maybe she'll even figure out how to do that while she's performing on balance beam in one of her seven remaining competitions. (The next is Wednesday night at Utah State.) Smith is as uncompromising as that balance beam. Coach Greg Marsden used to call her his daredevil. Smith still doesn't back down. Her biggest contribution is consistency of character and performance. Marsden marvels that she's never missed a routine in the pressure-packed team night at the NCAA finals.While other gymnasts labor on the balance beam, tensely concentrating on each coming move, Smith uses her time in quite another manner: "When I'm on balance beam, I plan my day, what I'm going to do tomorrow," she says.

Gymnastics comes rather easily to her, and her routines unfold naturally from her preparation in the practice gym. It couldn't be any other way for the ultra-organized Smith, who's found in combining gymnastic and engineering disciplines that, "There is enough time if you use each moment."

Not that she's perfect. She's the first to admit that the difference between her scores and those of teammate Missy Marlowe, who gets 9.9s regularly and even has a 10, is in the fluidness of execution. "I've always learned skills real fast," says Smith. "The hard part is making them look nice. It has a lot to do with my body type - I wasn't blessed with straight knees, and if I relax, it shows."

That's what she's working on most in this, her last year. She's still upgrading skills - like the floor routine she debuted this year that Marsden calls dramatic and different from anything else, and like improving her bar routine enough to get back into the all-around after a year of not competing in it - but it's the nuances, the maturity, that have made the 1991 Smith the best she's ever been.

Marlowe, Shelly Schaerrer and Kristen Kenoyer have the spectacular scores. They are the fireworks for Utah. Smith is the steel that held the team together through the leaner years and that helped get the Utes back to the national championship last year.

As a freshman, she was high-profile. She was Utah's Most Valuable Gymnast and High Country Conference Newcomer of the Year for any sport, fourth in the NCAA all-around. A preseason shoulder injury slowed her sophomore year. She did three events as a junior as Utah won back its title.

As a senior, she is quietly having her finest moments.

She set a career high in the all-around Feb. 2 with 38.9 and scored 38.8 Feb. 11 and 38.7 on Jan. 21. She had her best floor score, 9.85, last Monday against Fullerton, and she had her best beam score, 9.8, on Feb. 2. She's been within .45 of career bests on bars and vault this season.

"I feel really good about this year," Smith says.

It's overshadowed by Marlowe and the others. That's OK. "Yeah, Missy gets the attention, but if she didn't it would be ridiculous," says Smith.

In a rare moment, though, she confides, "In the back of your mind, you just wish someone would acknowledge the fact that you're doing better." Marsden often does in postmeet comments, but his words are lost amongst Utah's latest NCAA-record-setting news. On nearly any other team in the country, she'd be No. 1, but Marlowe, Schaerrer and Kenoyer sometimes rank 1-2-3 in the country.

Smith deals with those and other emotions internally. "She's very private," says Marsden. "If there's a problem, you have to drag it out of her. She doesn't whine when things are tough. She has that quality more than anybody I've ever dealt with."

"There's this inner thing that you want to beat (Marlowe's scores) so badly you can taste it," Smith admits.

That, however, is only a small part of the reason Smith is still improving. It has more to do with her stubborn streak and the realization that time's running short on her career. "It's like you have a deadline. I have a mind-set that it's going to happen," she says. "By no means am I going to leave feeling I could have done more."

When Smith commits, nothing stops her. "Once I decide, my mind's made up whether I hate it or not," she says, laughing and recounting how she got into the tough civil engineering course: Marsden gives his gymnasts aptitude tests when they enter Utah. Smith didn't even know what civil engineering was, but her tests pointed to it. She was using a gymnastics scholarship to get an education - "A ticket to another life - I'm not going to blow it," she thought - and chose to believe the test results. She liked journalism and poetry, but she also liked math and things analytical and architectural. She hopes to use her eventual degree to design more functional gyms and equipment.

Predicts Marsden, "She'll have greater success than she's had in gymnastics when she's out of school. She'll have a great career. It's just the kind of person she is."

For now, though, says Smith, "I couldn't ask for a better senior year."