Having paid dues, Bruce hopes her bills are next


Wendy Bruce is a woman among children. Nineteen is young, but not in gymnastics, where getting your driver's license is a ticket to retirement.

But Bruce is still tumbling, keeping up with kids so tiny they look like a troop of Brownies.

"Everyone is mature in this sport," she said. "It takes discipline to be a gymnast, and everyone seems older than they really are. None of the other competitors ever asks me about age."

Today, the Baltimore Arena will be transformed into a Heartbreak Hotel as the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Trials reach a crescendo with the women's optional finals.

While the focus will be on the confrontation between Shannon Miller, the leader after Thursday night's compulsories, and Kim Zmeskal, the 1991 all-around world champion, the real drama will be in following a gymnast such as Bruce, who is seventh overall.

Beset with injuries, burdened by financial problems, Bruce, a North Lauderdale, Fla., native, has survived the rigors of a sport that often bends both body and spirit.

She overcame foot surgery, knee surgery, a sprained thumb, torn arm muscle, hyperextended elbow, sprained shoulder, mononucleosis and chickenpox.

She watched as her family put a second mortgage on their house, sliding further into debt to sustain a career that costs $10,000 a year.

"My father laid out the bills for me," she said. "He said it costs the family $4,000 a month to live. And that doesn't even include food. I know how much my parents have sacrificed. My father lets me take money from a checking account. I feel guilty every time I do it. But I have to eat, too."

No wonder Bruce calls this the "last pressure-packed meet" of her 14-year career. Now, she will be judged by one performance.

"I'm nervous," Bruce admitted yesterday after practice.

Who wouldn't be?

She can control her performance, but not the behind-the-scenes maneuvering among coaches and officials trying to put together an Olympic team.

In reality, the trials are a made-for-television semifinals, with the final team selection of six gymnasts and one alternate taking place as late as next month in a training camp in the south of France.

Miller and Zmeskal are virtual locks to lead the team. Kerri Strug, sitting third, also looks like she is going to Barcelona.

The rest remains murky.

Betty Okino and Michelle Campi, out with injuries, have already received invitations to the training camp. That leaves Bruce and nine others, including Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, struggling for the final three tryout berths.

"I can't think about the judges and the scores," Bruce said. "All I can do is think about going out and doing my best, landing my routines."

She has been close to the top of the sport for so long, she is sometimes overlooked. But when she was 15, she was special, 11th in the all-around at the 1989 world championships, winner of a dual meet between the United States and East Germany, gold medalist in a pairs competition with China's Li Jing.

"I never felt better than anyone," she said. "I always felt like I was improving."

But then, the injuries came. A foot. A knee. She lost training time. She lost her confidence.

"It wasn't fun," she said. "I was standing on the sidelines watching everyone else train."

Last year, she quit for a month. Burned out, she said. And then she came back. For the money. Her father, Fred, and mother, Ginny, said that if she made the national team, she would receive a stipend from the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, enabling the family to pay off some debts.

"I know it sounds strange, but it was just a way to motivate me," she said. "I needed something. I needed to do it for the money. And then, I needed to compete for myself."

She was fifth in the all-around at the 1991 U.S. championships in Cincinnati. Her confidence soared. The cash trickled in.

She trained fiercely for the trials and made it to Baltimore. Standing 5 feet 1, weighing 98 pounds, she appeared every bit the woman, surrounded by school kids, Thursday night. She swayed on the balance beam, but wouldn't drop to the floor.

Bruce still has a chance, ever so slim, of getting to Barcelona, of paying off one last debt to her parents.

"If I make it, it will all have been worthwhile," she said. "If I don't, I'll go out and get a job. I want to help pay the bills."

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