SHE'S PLAYING HOOKY IN SEOUL

Simple logic told Tami Bruce this: Swim merely fast, and you'll spend September on a college campus in Gainesville, Fla.; swim faster, and you'll spend most of the month in the Olympic Village in Seoul.

Keeping this in mind, Chula Vista's Bruce swam the best 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle races of her life two weeks ago at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in Austin, Tex. Second-place finishes in the 400 and 800 ensured her a berth in the Summer Games.

"If I weren't on the Olympic team, I would have started school (Monday)," Bruce said by telephone from Austin.

For Bruce, 21, a 1985 graduate of Hilltop High School and a senior at the University of Florida, precisely 4.93 seconds--4.77 in the 800 and .16 in the 400--made the difference between classes and splashes, between composition and competition.

Bruce welcomes the temporary pause in school, knowing that she has reached a goal that dangled within her reach on four occasions at the trials four years ago, then mercilessly snatched away.

At the 1984 trials in Indianapolis, Bruce competed in the 200-meter butterfly and the same freestyle events she swam this year, and narrowly missed qualifying in all of them.

Randy Reese, the U.S. Olympic assistant coach and Bruce's coach at Florida, said she had overextended herself.

"She was so close in '84," Reese said, "but I feel that she was overswum. Tami was swimming an event every day. You can't really do that. You just get too tired. If she had stayed out of a couple of races, that would have made the difference."

The trials weren't Bruce's first encounter with the "always-a-bridesmaid" syndrome. She says a similarly painful experience at the 1983 Pan Am Games trials in Clovis, prepared her somewhat for her exclusion from the 1984 Olympics.

At the Pan Am trials, Bruce finished .01 seconds from making the team in the 200-meter freestyle.

"That was my first major disappointment," Bruce said. "I came in fifth, and they only took four. It was a good way to get me ready for trials, and it gave me a chance to see all the harsh disappointments."

Tami's father, Bard Bruce, said Tami felt she was almost on her way to Caracas, Venezuela, where the Pan Am Games were held. Bruce was training with the prestigious Mission Viejo Nadadores and Coach Mark Schubert at the time.

"Mark practically guaranteed her that she would make the team," Bard Bruce said. "So when she didn't make the Olympic team in 1984, she didn't take it nearly as bad."

Bard thinks Tami can use these failures to help her in Seoul.

"If anything's going to help her, it will be the disappointments of the past. For her to recall those moments will be great motivation for her."

An extensive swimming resume has helped Bruce grab that competitive edge.

"In '84, the reason I got touched out was lack of experience and not knowing what you need to put in the race in the last 50 meters," she said. "Like in the 400 this year, it was a really close race. (Experience) can really make the difference."

Unlike the '84 trials, Bruce said, the tension level in Austin remained tolerable.

"I felt pretty comfortable at the trials," she said. "The meet was kind of slow, not as intense as the meet was in '84, when there was a lot of stress going around the pool. I think some of the swimmers who had missed the team in '80 were still around (in '84), and that added to the stress."

If saving her best races for her final two events frazzled the minds of family-members watching her swim--Bruce was third in the 200 freestyle, failing to qualify, and only swam a preliminary heat of the 200 butterfly--it didn't bother her.

"No, it wasn't nerve-racking," she said. "I just swam (the 200) as fast as I could. I won it at the NCAAs, so I thought it would be the perfect race to set me up for the 400, because the 400 has become such a sprint race with Janet (Evans, the world record holder). A 4:05? That's pretty much a sprint to me. I was pretty excited to swim a good 400, and be a little more confident for the rest of the meet."

In the 400, Bruce (4:07.89) finished second to Evans (4:06.43). Evans again beat Bruce in the 800, 8:23.59 to 8:30.

The athletes will be in Los Angeles until Tuesday, then leave for eight days of training in Hawaii.

Bruce's father and mother, Judy, are making the trip to South Korea and look forward to seeing their oldest daughter swim in Seoul. Sister Robyn, a swimmer at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, won't be able to make the trip; she left Thursday to return to school.

"I'm a little leery about Seoul," Bard said, "I kind of wish they were somewhere else, but personally, I think she can break the world record in the 400 and win the gold. She's ready. She said she'd swim better in Seoul (than at the trials), and I think she can."

Said Judy: "I'm a little nervous, but I'm going."

What does going to Seoul mean to Tami?

She's not quite sure.

"I imagine when I get over there, it will hit me," she said. "It should have already, but it hasn't. This isn't like anything I've ever done."

Bruce said that every day, "each step we take is a little more exciting. After we get outfitted (in Los Angeles), I have a feeling I'll be bouncing off the walls. I hear we get tons of stuff. It's like Christmas four months early."

They are presents she trained hard for.

"It's little weird to set your mind on this and keep going," said Bruce, who is used to taking time off at this time of year and hasn't been home since Christmas.

"I've never trained this long without a break," she said. "This is kind of a trip. The thing that kills me is it's a month-and-a-half trip. Usually you're gone a couple of weeks for a meet."

The long trip is simply an extension of the long training Bruce has put in, training that would have been wasted had she not made the team.

"I don't know how I would have felt," she said. "I was prepared for that too. Even though it's hard to realistically see it, you just don't like to think about it. If that was the case, it would be better to have just have had my best times."

But she wouldn't have been pleased with herself.

"I know I would have been really mad. I've been working so hard, for so long."

Bruce says a drop in her times, and possibly a medal, is a realistic goal in Seoul.

"Yeah, I think so," she said. "You just can't honestly say, 'No, I won't medal.' Right now I'm fourth in the world in the 400, sixth in the 800."

She and Reese are looking for significant drops in both events.

"I think I'm capable of dropping my times," Bruce said. "A 4:05 in the 400 is realistic. Randy and I talked about strategy in the 800, and we're hoping for a 8:24, that's lopping six seconds off my best time. It's not unrealistic."

Said Reese: "Tami was sick for a couple of months before the trials, and she was missing some training. That sickness set her back, kept her from doing better repeat times. Her health was really the main concern. I was fairly concerned that she would even make the team."

But now that she is in full health, "her repeat times are better (in workouts)," he said.

Bruce's main competition is expected to be Placentia's Evans, the world record holder in both the 400 and 800, East Germany's Helka Friedrich and Anke Mohring and Australia's Janelle Elford.

Reese said Bruce's chances to medal are good.

"I think that you need to go into the competition feeling that you can (win a medal). Janet's in that same group, she's not so far ahead of everyone. It's whoever does the right stuff that day."

Bruce said she tries not to worry about all the media discussion centering around 16-year-old Evans.

"The press is always asking questions about her, but I don't think about what she's going to do," Bruce said. "We're a team and all, but she's still going to be there in the next meet. What she does doesn't have any effect on me. She just came onto the scene a couple of years ago and swam out of her mind. But she's still real young, and her body's going to change."

Bruce said Reese made some small adjustments in her training in March.

"He had me doing more sprinting, but mostly, he's been working on little things, things that I can't begin to explain," she said. "He just worked on my free stroke technique, made a few changes, and other little technical things, like a slightly different pitch of the hand, and he worked on my finish and my entry."

Said Reese: "Her stroke has gotten much better, she learned to use her legs more in her kick, and she really made her mind up what she wanted to do."

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