American athletes forced to balance their time and money between jobs and training should be getting some relief soon.

The U.S. Olympic Committee said Thursday that it plans for the first time to make direct cash payments to top American athletes to help offset training costs. Previously, financial aide for top athletes came through their clubs."It would be a big help, words can't describe how much help," Connie Price, women's discus winner at the U.S. Olympic Trials, said of the proposal. "I had a job, but I quit in February because of the stress. We made enough to survive."

"Right now, my husband is a coach at a junior college and we both have part-time jobs," said Ramona Pagel, another Olympian in the discus. "Between us, we have three jobs, and we're still on a poverty level. There's not a lot of money coming in. I get a little help from my club, but not a lot."

That kind of hand-to-mouth existence is what the USOC proposes to alleviate.

"It is simply no longer possible for a world class athlete to compete successfully and at the same time earn a living in a full-time job," USOC president Robert Helmick said.

"Our ultimate goal is to provide our top-level athletes with sufficient support for living and training expenses so that they may spend the time necessary to train and compete internationally."

The direct payments are part of a $25-million proposal that includes job and scholarship programs for athletes. Money would come from sales of 1988 Olympic coins.

The national governing bodies of individual sports would determine which top athletes receive the direct payments. But the payment itself would come directly from the USOC, spokesman Mike Moran said.

"They (governing bodies) can stretch the money as far as they want," he said. "They can select 20 people or 200 people."

Pagel said she would prefer having the money not spread too thin.

"The more you spread the money, the less good it's going to do, but it's not for me to decide," she said.

In the case of college competitors, payments would not be made if they conflicted with NCAA or other eligibility rules, Moran said.

The USOC said it is working with college administrators on ways to assist scholarship athletes in need of additional support while competing in Olympic or Pan American sports.

The program was approved in principle on Sunday by a USOC committee meeting in Indianapolis. The USOC executive board will vote on the proposal in November. If approved, the program would begin in 1989.

In the past, some athletes - such as track stars - have received appearance fees from sponsors and subsidies from federations to help offset the cost of training.

"It is tough (training without adequate funding)," Olympic distance runner Mary Decker Slaney said. "This is the first year, really, that I've had any funding. This is a step in the right direction. The program will be a little broader. Even though you are allowed endorsements, track is not a glamor sport like tennis or basketball. So I think it's really needed."

She said top USA athletes of world-class standing will benefit from this program.

"It will have a dramatic impact on their chances to achieve success in competitions leading up to and including the 1992 Summer and Winter Olympic Games."

About $7 million from coin sales has already been used to help athletes prepare for the 1988 Olympics. The rest of the proceeds will be used to assist athletes over the next four years as they train for the 1992 Games.

The direct cash program would supplement the USOC's "Operation Gold," which provides support payments to athletes based on their world ranking.

Operation Gold is funding about 320 athletes at an average of $2,500 a year.

The proposal also would expand a program that helps athletes find suitable jobs and establish a scholarship fund for those who want to stay in school while training and competing in Olympic sports.

The job program would receive more than $3 million in additional funding over the next four years, while $2 million would be used to start the scholarship fund.

The job program has helped about 140 athletes over the past four years. The USOC said it wants to increase the number to 350 during the 1989-92 period.

The USOC is comprised of national governing bodies that oversee each Olympic and Pan American sport as well as other sports organizations. During the past 3 1/2 years, the 29 governing bodies for summer sports have received about $43 million from the USOC and the U.S. Olympic Foundation.

Although the USOC has never given athletes direct cash payments, it has funded "Operation Seoul," a program sponsored by The Athletics Congress which gives 25 top U.S. track and field athletes $2,000 each per month in direct cash support.