BOSTON - Through the tears that kept flowing, sometimes surprising her when she was preparing to start a routine, Darling Hill couldn't see the point of continuing with gymnastics. Not when the only reason she competed, her grandmother, was no longer with her.

"I was doing it for her," Hill said of Elouise Dixon, the woman she called her mom. "When she passed, I said I was going to quit. Then, a week later, I had to go to camp. I didn't want to go. When I got there, I wanted to go home."

She went to the training camp at the Karolyi ranch in Texas thinking she was finished as a competitive gymnast. She left determined to honor her grandmother's sacrifice by sticking with the sport and maybe, just maybe, earning a berth on the U.S. Olympic team.

After a stunning first-place finish in the floor exercise at the Pacific Rim championships in San Jose in March - less than three weeks after her grandmother's death - Hill is in Boston for the Visa championships. It is the last big meet before the Olympic trials, which are scheduled for June 19 through 22 at the Wachovia Center.

That's practically home turf for this 2007 graduate of Lenape High School in Medford, Burlington County. But it's another world for a young woman who was shocked to be considered for the team that competed in San Jose.

"Sometimes," team coordinator Martha Karolyi said, "it is best to focus on something, instead of just doing the grief. It's a way to be back to normal."

Normal is relative, of course. Hill was born in Newark, N.J., to parents who, she says, "were doing the wrong things to be able to take care of kids." When she was 3 days old, her father's mother picked her up from the hospital and took her home. A few years later, Elouise Dixon moved the makeshift family, which by then included Darling's sister Melissa, to Mount Laurel.

Gymnastics was never a stepping-stone to fame or money. It was just an activity that Darling Hill took to at an early age, and that her grandmother kept her involved in.

"She made sure I never missed a day," Hill said, eyes swimming even as she smiled at the memory. "I can remember being in bed, holding onto the sheets and her pulling me out of the room. I hate practicing."

There was a reason her grandmother was so committed to taking her to gym class. It was the same reason the people at Will-Moor Gymnastics were so generous, sometimes slipping Hill a new leotard or, Hill suspects, giving her grandmother an especially good price for lessons.

The reason is that Hill was special, even if it took her a while to realize it herself.

"A lot of people here, they know they're good because that's what people say," Hill said. "To prove it to yourself, that's hard."

Two years ago, she was invited to work out with the national team. An injury kept her from earning a berth, but the opportunity made her realize she was more than just a good club gymnast.

"I thought, 'OK, maybe I can run with the big dogs,' " Hill said.

As her gymnastics commitments became greater, her grandmother's health grew worse. Elouise Dixon was found to have, of all things, a heart that was too big.

"I hated to travel because I hated being away from her," Hill said.

And then her grandmother was gone, and all of that time in the gym seemed meaningless. So did everything else, as Hill slipped into a scary depression.

It took time and the support of friends and her pastor to get her to see things differently.

"I told her that her grandmother already did so much for her," teammate Alicia Sacramone said. "She wouldn't want her to give it up just because she passed. She's going to be looking down at her and be proud of her for competing. I think she took that into consideration. She's still here today."

Her grandmother hadn't been able to travel around and see her perform. Now, Hill believes, her grandmother's eyes are always on her.

There's another set she isn't so sure about. Through family, Hill sent her birth mother a DVD of some of her performances. After all these years, Hill would like her mother to know what she has accomplished. Her father, Tyrone, has moved into his mother's house to take care of his daughters.

Beijing is not a lock. Only six gymnasts will be chosen. Hill will compete here tonight with a sprained ankle, a hyperextended knee, and tears in both shoulders that make the uneven bars extremely painful.

"It's just a question of how much pain you can take," Hill said with a no-big-deal shrug.

That's a question Darling Hill's been answering every day.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan

at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.