Tracee Talavera is very wise for her age. That is fortunate, because Talavera leads a life that quickly would drive an ordinary 12-year-old to tears.
Talavera is the youngest - and one of the best - of the American gymnastics mannikins inspired by Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. She won the women's all-around title at the National Sports Festival and Monday night added gold medals in uneven bars and balance beam.
Talavera's home is in Santa Clara, Calif., but last year her father deposited her at a gymnastics school in Eugene, Ore., and, according to the Oregon Journal, said with all seriousness, "We told her to work hard and call us if she needed anything."
Talavera sees her parents four times a year.The rest of the time she is either training six hours a day - her school schedule is specialized and brief - or competing in New York or Bulgaria or Japan.
There are rewards beyond the travel, in the solid realism of gold medals, or the fantasy stirred by adoration from awed elders and signature seeking youngsters.
At 74 pounds, the 4-foot-10 Talavera is not a physical midget among a group that includes 72-pound Jackie Cassello of Silver Spring, Md. Of the 26 women participating in the gymnastics competition here, 19 weighed less than 100 pounds, eight 90 or less.
But 12 or 13 can be a lonely age in the sports world and Talavera and Cassello frequently were seen here chattering away - presumably about nothing, because Talavera, asked what they said to each other, replied, "I don't know."
Of her relations with her elders, however, Talavera was more candid and said, "Sometimes it's hard to talk to the older kids. I mean, I can talk to them, except when they get into conversations and I don't know what they're talking about. But I understand when they talk gymnastics."
Gymnastics was the talk of the Festival and more than 7,300 persons created the tightest squeeze in the 20-year history of the 6-000-capacity Air Force Academy Field House for Monday's individual events. It was so claustrophobic that officials offered refunds to anyone who wished to depart.
Only 20 accepted, but perhaps a few others had second thoughts by the time the program struggled through the balance beam to the introductions for floor exercise.
Cassello had shared the vaulting gold with Christa Canary by earning a 9.9 last-chance score with a superb Tsukahara layout. Then Talavera and Suzy Kellems divided uneven bars gold with competent performances.
Everything was off the beam in the next phase, however. Only the unsmiling Talavera showed any confidence and six of the eight competitors fell, with the seventh barely saving her balance several times.
"That's the way our girls used to be," said Sharon Weber, the superior judge who earned the crowd's applause by chasing an annoying NBC cameraman. "We used to have six falls a competition, but since we've improved we haven't seen that.
"It is unusual and It think the altitude may have had a lot to do with it.Some of the girls have been complaining of dizziness, particularly at the end of the floor exercise, but there is also probably an effect on the beam."
The crowd accepted the poor show with good grace and eagerly awaited the floor exercise routine of Rhonda Schwandt, who had been granted a perfect 10 during Friday's team event. Alas, Schwandt had aggravated a knee injury while vaulting and was forced to retire.
Before the event started, the original field of nine qualifiers was reduced to four, and a couple of also-rans were added to provide a semblance of competition. In Yankee Stadium they would have chanted "refund," but the gym viewers here merely buzzed a bit in disbelief.
Leslie Pyfer, the national champion, was excused after injuring an ankle Friday. Cassello jammed her right foot while completing that Tsukahara. Linda Kardos, who at 17 weighs 83 pounds, reported sick, possibly from malnutrition. Talavera was reduced to signing autographs for eager boys even younger than she while she nursed a minor foot injury.
With a casualty list of such length, and Marcia Frederick and Jeannine Creek hurt before the meet, one could only wonder whether Talavera would soon be calling home, looking for some of that proffered help.
She needs assistance in another area, since the minimum age for the World Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth in December is 14. The International Gymnastics Federation already has refused to grant waivers to underage girls from Poland and Holland.
But even if she were forced to quit the sport permanently, Talavera says it would be worthwile.
"If tomorrow I couldn't do it, I'd at least feel like I had done something in the sport," she said. "And at least I had a good time." CAPTION: Picture, Tracee Talavera, 12, of Santa Clara, Calif., wins gold medal on balance beam at National Sports Festival. PA