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Sacramone has balancing act down

PROVIDENCE - Alicia Sacramone is sipping coffee, her indispensable fuel, at a shop on Thayer Street in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon on College Hill. As always, she's on the run, shuttling between her college classes and her twice-a-day workouts in Burlington, Mass. She may just have turned professional, but her cram-jammed, high-speed schedule hasn't changed much.

"It doesn't feel much different - yet," says the irrepressible Winchester, Mass., gymnast, who's just beginning her second year at Brown. "My friends say, 'Tell us when the good stuff happens.' "

Like endorsements, magazine covers, glitzy parties, sitdowns with Leno and Letterman, all the things that could come her way if she can bring back a fistful of medals from Beijing next summer.

Right now, though, the biggest change for the 19-year-old Sacramone is that she can make money and can't compete for her school anymore. She had made that decision even before she'd clinched the gold medal for the United States women's team with a brilliant floor routine at this month's world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Olympic year was coming up and Sacramone felt she had to make a choice. Either keep straddling the elite and collegiate worlds, which nobody else on the planet is doing, or step into the fast lane for good, picking up the financial perks - prize money, US Olympic Committee subsidies and bonuses, sponsorships - that come with going pro.

"People were asking me last year when I was going to do it," says Sacramone, who signed with TrinityOne Marketing as soon as she got home from Germany. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance and I had to take it."

Though the timing was startling, Brown coach Sara Carver-Milne had figured her star performer probably wouldn't finish her collegiate career. "There's a big push right before the Olympics and I completely understand that Alicia has this opportunity to take full advantage of it," she says. "Everyone knows that she's one of the most marketable gymnasts on the national team."

Sacramone may not be the country's best all-around gymnast - 15-year-old Shawn Johnson won the global crown - but she's the team captain, the one her teammates look to when things get wobbly.

"Alicia is the ideal person for that," says national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. "She is looked up to and she deserves that role. She has the personality and she cares about the young gymnasts and for the common goal of the team."

Which is why it was a wrenching decision for Sacramone to leave the Brown varsity after just a year. She loved the camaraderie, but her dual commitment to college and country, plus her academic obligations, left her exhausted.

"It was physically and emotionally draining," Sacramone says. "I was driving all over the place, up all hours. I don't know how I survived last year, but I did it. It was a lot harder than I imagined."

With the Olympics on the horizon, the juggling act only figured to become more difficult. It wasn't just the crazy schedule, it was the conflicting demands of training and competing for decidedly disparate teams at the same time.

"They are opposite situations," says Mihai Brestyan, Sacramone's club coach since childhood. "College is like cheerleading stuff. At the elite level, you have to work like a superstar, no mistakes. At the world championships, you have to be perfect."

That was the challenge when Sacramone took the floor at the global meet with the Americans trailing the defending champion Chinese with one rotation to go. If she nailed her routine, the US team would win its first title on foreign soil. If she didn't, it would be another silver. "All the pressure was on her, because if she is falling, everything falls apart," says Brestyan. "But she stood up."

Not that her stomach wasn't doing a salto with a double twist. "I don't think I've ever been so nervous in my life," confesses Sacramone, who had pulled an abdominal muscle during the meet. But her locked-in expression said otherwise. "I just knew she would do it," Karolyi says. "I took a look at her face and it was: 'It is totally decided that I will do this routine.' "

Once she nailed her final tumbling pass, Sacramone knew that she - and the team - were home free. "I flashed a smile, which I hardly ever do," she says. "It was such a release, I just lost it and started crying."

Next thing Sacramone knew, she and her teammates were atop the medal podium, watching the Stars and Stripes go up and listening to the anthem. "The last time [in 2003 in Anaheim, Calif.], everyone said we won because we were on home turf," says Sacramone, who also picked up a silver on floor and a bronze on vault to run her individual career total to five. "But we proved that we can win anywhere."

If the Americans can beat the Chinese in Beijing, they'll truly startle the world. Though Sacramone still will have to make the team at the June trials in Philadelphia and a probable subsequent selection camp, it's all but a lock if she's healthy, given her captaincy, her rock-solid dependability, and her proficiency on three events.

"Anything can happen, but what they need is what I have," reckons Sacramone, whose collegiate experience made her markedly better on beam. "With me, they pretty much know what they're going to get."

She's been a familiar face since 2003, when Sacramone was the youngest member of the national team at 15. "Time flew by," she says. "I was the baby then. Now I'm the old woman. I don't know what happened in four years."

She's a college sophomore now, taking courses in modern architecture, cinematic coding, French history, and sociology. Unless the double-daily, round-trip commute to Burlington in her Acura drives her daffy ("I feel like I get an oil change every day"), Sacramone plans to stay in school all year. "I tell everybody, school keeps me sane," she says. "If I was in the gym all day, every day, I would lose my mind."

And though she can't twist and tumble for Brown any longer, Sacramone likely will serve as a volunteer coach, provided things can be worked out with the NCAA. "I think it would be great for her," says Carver-Milne. "Alicia still loves Brown and we would love to have her still involved with the team. I think we'd all win."

By now, her fellow students have begun to figure out that Sacramone is that Rettonesque rocket who spends most of her time in midair on Uncle Sam's behalf. "My roommates think it's the funniest thing ever," she says. "People will say, 'Are you that gymnast?' I'm like, 'Yeah.' And they'll say, 'Oh, my God, you're so great' - and my roommates will be laughing because I'm so embarrassed."

Sacramone is as recognized as she wants to be and decidedly less than some of her fellow TrinityOne clients such as Patriots Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Adalius Thomas, golfer Cristie Kerr, and Revolution gunner Taylor Twellman. "I don't have people all over my business," she says. "That's when things get crazy."

Right now, Sacramone's life is as normal as it ever gets for her. Just one team to train for, no big meets for the rest of the year, and a manageable class schedule. As long as her car and her cranky left knee, which was surgically repaired last year, hold up, she's in the express lane to Olympus. That's where the good stuff happens. That's where a woman can vault herself straight onto a Wheaties box.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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