Tracy Bonner had a ready rationale for her daily dozes in class: The teacher's lesson had put her to sleep again. At her Houston high school and later at Tennessee, where she earned a B.S. in exercise science and a master's in sports administration, the Olympic diving hopeful often left classes with notepads of squiggly lines that had trailed off the pages and onto her clothing. I'm a typical student-athlete, Bonner figured: overworked, overtrained and underrested.
It wasn't enough that she'd been a nationally ranked diver who trained six hours a day since 1992, when she was 18. Bonner was also an Academic All-America who danced in a Nutcracker production, attended regular Bible study and volunteered in an elementary school reading program. If anyone was entitled to the odd nod, she was. "I was usually so active," Bonner says. "I never figured it was a disease."
But Bonner was conking out just about everywhere. One minute she'd be stretching her legs on the pool deck; the next minute she'd be limp: right leg all the way forward, left leg behind, forehead slumped over her right knee. Bonner dozed the first time she took the SAT, then stayed awake during a retest and raised her score 200 points. She fell asleep standing up while taking a shower, fortunate not to pitch headfirst to the floor. She even snoozed while driving on what was luckily a straight stretch of Texas interstate, despite blasting the radio and air conditioning to keep herself awake. She could bob and shake to country and contemporary Christian music on her Walkman between dives, then fade as though someone had just flipped on John Tesh.
Finally, at the suggestion of several friends, Bonner checked in to the Sleep Disorders Center at Baptist Hospital of East Tennessee in February 1996. After hooking her up to electrodes, recording her movements with an infrared camera and monitoring her brain waves while she slept, doctors diagnosed narcolepsy, a disorder of the brain and central nervous system that causes abrupt sleepiness and severe bouts of muscle weakness. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about one in 2,000 Americans suffers from the disorder.
With little warning the narcolepsy would induce Bonner to bypass the early stages of slumber and fall straight into the REM stage of deep sleep. Doctors prescribed medication containing dextro-amphetamine, a stimulant on the IOC's banned list. Fearing sanctions, Bonner tried herbal cures, including Yohimbe, an extract of the bark of an African tree of the same name, which were unsuccessful. Then she took the prescribed stimulant in 25-milligram pills and declared it on competition forms, in case she was tested for drugs.
With her narcolepsy under control, Bonner and her diving partner, Kathy Pesek, won three straight national outdoor titles and two of three indoor crowns in the synchronized three-meter springboard. Despite these results—and a bronze medal in the worlds in the same event in '98—Bonner wasn't chosen for a random test until May 1999, after a competition in Montreal. Last August, FINA, the sport's international governing body, suspended her for a year. That apparently ruined her bid to make the U.S. Olympic team. "They wanted me to choose between diving and living a normal life," says Bonner, who appealed her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. She continued training while studying for a second master's (in human resource development) and helped care for an octogenarian with Alzheimer's, while also opening a massage-therapy center in Knoxville called Bonner's Bodyworks and fancying a future as an amphibious acrobat with Cirque du Soleil.
After examining a two-inch-thick sheaf of prescriptions, declaration forms and medical communiqu�s that Bonner had amassed since her diagnosis, CAS reduced her suspension to two months, which amounted to time served on last Oct. 8, her 26th birthday. Just as important, she can now take her medication and not worry about being suspended when she's tested again.
"The medication doesn't give me any advantage," she says. "I just wanted a chance." It won't be easy for Bonner, who placed fourth in the individual three-meter springboard at the indoor nationals in April and will need to finish first or second at the Olympic trials later this month in Seattle to earn a trip to Sydney. (The U.S. did not qualify a team for the Games in synchronized three-meter.) Until then she can rest assured there is still room in her sleep for an Olympic dream.