Ever since she was a little girl, Erin Nett has been as comfortable flipping through the air as she is walking on the ground.
Life as a competitive gymnast kept her in the air five days a week for most of the past 13 years. When a broken foot ended her gymnastics career last winter, Nett turned her attention to new heights.
Now, the Bel Air High senior is soaring again -- as a pole vaulter.
"I love the feeling. I can't even explain it," said Nett, 17. "I'm used to flipping around from gymnastics, and this is so much higher. It's just fun."
It's even more fun because Nett is good at it.
Earlier this season, she vaulted 10 feet 6 inches. Only one other Maryland girl has reached that height -- KC Allen of Calvert High, who also has cleared 11-0.
Nett has qualified for the scholastic national championships to be held in Boston in March.
Her rise in the sport has been nothing short of meteoric, and her potential is so great that five college coaches offered her scholarships. Nett, who carries a 3.6 grade-point average, signed early with Clemson.
"She's a find," said Bel Air coach Don Mickey. "In two or three months, she was already over 9 feet, and there are kids who've been doing this for two years who are struggling to go 8."
Nett won the Harford County title last spring after competing in only two other meets. She went on to sweep the region and state Class 3A titles.
"I guess gymnastics helped, because I didn't have any form," said Nett, a second-team All-Metro pick whose best height last year was 9-6. "Last year, I didn't have any expectations. I just wanted to see if I could do it."
Mickey also credits her gymnastics background with helping her succeed so quickly. She had the upper-body strength, knew how to get an approach down, and had the awareness of where she was in the air.
"She's not afraid of going into the air," said Mickey. "That's usually their biggest fear, but she's been doing that all her life."
Until last spring, Nett had planned to compete in gymnastics in college. She trained five days a week with the Aberdeen-Churchville Parks and Recreation team. But in December 1996, she was unexpectedly grounded.
After a back-handspring series on the balance beam at a Christmas-break practice, Nett landed awkwardly on her right foot. "It felt weird, but I thought I just bruised the ball of my foot, so I kept going."
A month later, she said, doctors told her she had broken the foot and because she had continued to train, it had not healed correctly. The pain finally forced her to quit.
Never one to sit still, she soon found a replacement sport.
Nett had been a sprinter, hurdler and high jumper for the Bobcats track team since she was a freshman. When coaches Mickey and Jim Otte asked her if she wanted to try the pole vault, she didn't hesitate.
She learned the basics last spring and polished her technique at a summer camp. Nett said this indoor season is just a tuneup for the spring season. In the next few weeks, she will begin working with a new pole -- one that's a foot longer and more flexible to give her extra boost over the bar.
While she has talent, strength and drive to succeed, her greatest asset may be her ability to block out all distractions.
Her 10-6 vault came after she got lost on her way to the meet and showed up just 10 minutes before her event. Last weekend at the National Guard meet in Baltimore, she weighed in at one pound too much for her pole. Her coach borrowed a longer, heavier pole and Nett still cleared 9 feet.
"That just shows how tough she is mentally," said Mickey. "She picked up a pole she had never seen in her life and finished second in what is, without a doubt, the biggest meet in Maryland. It's going to be very interesting this season to see just what she can do."
Pub Date: 1/23/98