She steps up to the uneven bars. She stares. Then Lake Braddock gymnast Julie Minton begins.

First, the half turn kip mount ("off my good leg") onto the high bar. Her teammates watch. Her coach, Ann Ripley, prays as Minton grabs the high bar and pulls her legs up. She advances into a new move of "superior difficulty," the hecht full twist. Minton wraps her legs around the low bar and then, with a swift spin, lifts her body forward and upward and twists in the air before landing.

As Minton spins in midflight, which takes only a few seconds, her teammates, coach and family hold their breath for what seems like hours. This routine has a happy ending. Minton lands successfully. She finishes with a score of 8.7 and ties for second place. But there is always wondering of "what if," what if she falls.

The Bruins are busy practicing for an upcoming meet. Some of the girls are lazy. They complain about little bruises. Then they look at Minton. The complaining stops.

They know Minton has suffered numerous bone chips in her ankle and foot, torn ligaments in her knees, a dislocated thumb and, last year, surgery to reconstruct her ankle. But try to tell Minton that she should give up gymnastics and she'll look at you as if you're crazy.

"Gymnastics is everything to me, everything," she said. "I used to practice four hours a day, five days a week. It's my whole life. That's why I'm not giving it up. It would be such a waste."

When Minton underwent surgery last year, a piece of tendon from the side of her leg was cut and brought down to her ankle to replace the torn ligaments. The operation was in May. Minton began working out in November.

"Its very frustrating to her doctors, her parents and to us," said Ripley. "We're not sure she is doing what is best for her down the road. But she is determined to continue gymnastics regardless."

Minton, an all-around gymnast until her injuries, excelled on the floor exercise, something she can no longer compete in. Considered an excellent dancer and tumbler, working the floor was her "No. 1 love." Last year, the Braddock sophomore competed on the balance beam, something she also can't do now.

"Julie isn't a specialist. She has so much to offer. So it's frustrating for her," said Ripley.

"I could see how she might become bitter," said teammate Tammy Burnette. "But she stands up behind everyone and supports the entire team and that takes a lot of bravery."

Although she can no longer perform many of her past tricks, that didn't stop Minton from finishing third in the Virginia AAA Northern Region championships with a score of 8.95. She placed fourth in the state tournament in Virginia Beach with an 8.95. Ripley was the only gymnast from Lake Braddock's championship team to place individually in the top five.

But Minton is careful during her routines. And Ripley worries that while Minton favors her right foot, she may injure her left, not uncommon among ailing athletes. "A lot of times when people are injured or coming off an injury, they try to compensate and catch themselves on their good leg," said Ripley. "We are awfully afraid that should Julie start to fall, she may injure something that's healthy."

However, tell Minton that and she'll laugh it off with: "Well, I'll just get rid of it along with my bad ankle, leg, knee, wrist . . . "

Last week, Minton took a hefty fall while performing a dismount. Fearing for her leg, she curled up in midflight and landed squarely on her back. Although a bit stunned, she got up and continued working without saying a word.

"That fall could have really been serious to another athlete," said Ripley. "I mean even Julie was sore but she never said anything. She came to practice the next day and it was business as usual."

As is the case for many athletes, Minton has learned to live with pain. Her days are spent walking on ankles that, when lightly touched, hurt badly. When she isn't practicing, she is involved in lots of exercises and soaking to alleviate the pain and help the healing. But the doctors remain pessimistic.

According to Ripley, doctors aren't happy with the way Minton's foot has healed and further surgery has been scheduled for March. Although she will probably be in a cast for months, Minton is already planning her rehabilitation.

"I'll still be working out on bars even in a cast," she said, matter-of-factly. "I did it before and I'll do it again."

Minton's routines have been "watered down" because of her injuries. Acts she used to perform are off-limits. But Minton swears she will be at full strength again.

"When I was really hurt," she said, "and couldn't do anything and had to just sit around, I was going crazy. So I've never really thought of quitting for good.

Minton pauses. "Listen, it's just natural that I'm coming back. I've made up my mind. I'm coming back."