MINNEAPOLIS, JULY 12 -- It's terrible to be 17 and considered over the hill.

Brandy Johnson, the top U.S. all-around finisher at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, has been written off at least twice this year by the gymnastics world. The first time was the McDonald's American Cup at George Mason University in March, when she lost to phenom Kim Zmeskal. The second time was earlier this summer, when she fell off the balance beam at the U.S. nationals and didn't make the Goodwill Games team, settling instead for a place at the U.S. Olympic Festival this week.

"They told me I was in the wrong age bracket for Seoul, and now they're telling me I'm too old for 1992," Johnson said as she prepared for Friday's women's all-around and team competition. "Hearing all this actually helps me because I want to prove them wrong. In the end, I'll prove them wrong. That's what I want to do. That will give me the most satisfaction."

Johnson is trying to do what almost no one in women's gymnastics has done: stick it out long enough to make another Olympic team. In a sport where the career shelf life is one to three years, Johnson is trying to stay on top for four or five. Some top women gymnasts come and go between Olympics, never competing in one. Johnson wants to bridge a tremendous generation gap.

"The commentators at the nationals were saying I was too old," she said. "Kathy Johnson was 24 {at the 1984 Olympics} and Kelly Garrison-Steves was 21 {at the 1988 Olympics}. I never heard them say they were too old, and I'm only 17."

This is not to say Johnson's decision to keep going has been made without trepidation. Right before her birthday in April, she took seven days off. She didn't go to the gym in Orlando, Fla., for the week, the longest she's been away from gymnastics since she began at age 7. She went to the beach and shopped and spent time thinking about this career of hers. It was an eternity for her coach, Kevin Brown.

"We had a long talk in my office and I told her it was totally up to her," Brown said. "It was just a break. She needed a break. But I wasn't sure what Brandy was going to do. I knew she still had everything to give back to the sport. But there were nights I laid back wondering what she would do."

On April 30, her birthday, Johnson walked back into the gym.

"I can't be away from this," she told Brown, and she was back.

The decision didn't come without painful memories. When Johnson is asked about the injuries and illnesses she has suffered, she looks down and begins with her ankles.

"My right ankle has been broken three times and my left ankle has been broken twice," she said.

Oh, she forgot her toe.

"I have a metal screw in my toe," she said. "I'm supposed to get it out next week."

She has fractured a knee and had most of her fingers and toes broken at one time or another. She suffered an injury to her sternum in January and was hospitalized for a mysterious ailment that turned out to be kidney stones just a week before the American Cup.

"I've just had one problem after another," she said.

So why does she still do it and not just return to high school and live a normal teenager's life?

"I love to compete," she said. "I spend all day in the gym working out, becoming my best, so that I will have success in competition. That's what I like, when I'm out on the floor and the audience cheers one of my routines."

Johnson still is hoping to qualify for the Goodwill Games as an alternate. (She was sixth at nationals in the portion of the competition used for qualifying and four women were selected, so she is second alternate.) But she doesn't seem too upset to be here, where her competition is far less intense than the international opponents she would face in Seattle.

She won her first junior national title here and won the national title here last year. She said she likes competing in Minneapolis, even if she does feel like the prom will be going on without her in Seattle later this month.

What carries her through is a healthy dose of perspective. Unlike so many gymnasts, she lives and trains at home. She moved to Bela Karolyi's Houston training camp before the 1988 Olympics, but went right back home after the Games, where she finished a surprising 10th in the all-around.

She said Karolyi still calls to ask her to come back, but she won't take his calls. "I know where I need to be and that's at home," she said. "I've had troubles this year, but they're over now."

Johnson doesn't act her age or size. She is an even 5 feet, "with shoes on," and weighs 95 pounds. "I don't think I see any growth spurts going my way," she said.

She wears size 3 shoes and size 1 dresses. She says it's hard to find high heels "without Mickey Mouse on them."

She may be small, but she is toughened by the battles she has waged, on the beam, floor, vault and uneven bars -- and in her mind.

"I know I haven't reached my potential yet," she said. "I'm just getting my second wind. I want to get to the Olympics again. Two times in a lifetime. That would fulfill my dreams."