Her aim has always been high and hard

July 26, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

They descend on the Annapolis boathouse at 3 sharp in the afternoon. College women with stern soldier faces and bodies straight out of Nike ads march toward the river balancing sculls on their shoulders.

At the dock, they stretch, their neat ponytails bobbing, and wait for orders from the short woman they call a "little powerhouse of energy" and look up to as their "big sister."

In her sweats and scuffed sneakers, Lt. Cmdr. Wendy B. Lawrence could be mistaken for another plebe on the Naval Academy crew team. But at age 32, the Navy aviator, teacher and coach, who is about to become one of the nation's select few astronauts, has an unmistakable air of authority. She commands by simply cocking an eyebrow.

For the novice women's crew team, a group drawn to discipline and grueling, almost painful, exercise, Wendy Lawrence is the ideal. Her motto -- "know your comfort zone and stay out of it" -- became their mantra.

She's known for her intensity. She runs marathons in her spare time and pushes herself harder than any admiring plebe. Last year, she got up at 6 every morning to train for her second Boston Marathon. She logged 80 miles a week until a scheduling conflict forced her to forfeit the race. The next day, she shrugged off her disappointment and went back to pounding the pavement.

For a woman who has kept her eyes fixed on her goals since childhood, who broke sex barriers in the Navy and rose to become one of three females chosen for NASA's space shuttle program this year, it was only natural.

For the daughter of Vice Adm. William P. Lawrence, a Vietnam War hero who came close to being the first man in space, it also was a way of showing that she, too, has the right stuff.

Her father had the greatest influence on her life, even though he was a prisoner of war for seven years of her childhood.

The third child of Admiral Lawrence and Anne Haynes, Wendy Lawrence was born July 2, 1959, just as President Eisenhower announced he wanted to put a man on the moon. She was an infant at the Naval Air Station at Patuxent River in Southern Maryland at a time when the nation's space program was in its infancy.

Bill Lawrence was considered by many to be the best test pilot at Pax River. The 29-year-old fighter jock, a 1951 graduate of the Naval Academy, figured he had a good shot at the Mercury space program. But in the final round of screening, as he was sweating it out in a heat chamber, doctors noticed he had a slight heart murmur. That was all it took. He was wiped out of the program.

Three decades later, his daughter was a little nervous as she headed to the Johnson Space Center in Houston for a rigorous set of physical and psychological tests. She knew she was in top shape, but she couldn't help remembering her father's experience as she joined the 100 other astronaut candidates, chosen from a field of 2,054.

"I kept my fingers crossed," she said. She didn't really relax again until she got official word that her dream had come true. From the final 100, the list was whittled to 19 candidates. In a week, she and the others will report to the Johnson Space Center to begin training.

An early dream

The seeds of her dream were planted early, even before she sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet at age 7 and decided she wanted to be just like her dad. She thinks she inherited the urge to fly from him and her grandfather, Rear Adm. MacPherson Williams, a decorated Navy pilot who was shot down over the Philippines during World War II.

"Whatever was in their blood was also in mine," she said with a slight grin.

Her early contact with the country's first astronauts, John Glenn (now a Democratic senator from Ohio), Alan Shephard and Virgil Grissom, also "brought the whole idea of space closer to home," she said. They were household names. She learned to swim with John Glenn's children, heard tales of the astronauts' adventures and was glued to the television set at age 10 when Neil A. Armstrong scooped up lunar rocks.

Her father left for Vietnam in 1966. On his second tour in the Tonkin Gulf, he was shot down and captured in a rice paddy. It was four days before Wendy Lawrence's 8th birthday.

For the next 14 months, while Bill Lawrence was locked in solitary confinement at Hao Lo, the Hanoi prison known for its harshness since French colonial days, his family lost hope. "We expected the worst," his daughter said.

Growing up on a Navy base near San Diego, she became an avid swimmer and took up boogie boarding. There were braces, softball games and family picnics. It was an average Southern Californian childhood -- except her father was missing.

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