Leap Year

<b>Plano East High (Texas)</b> senior <b>Erica McLain</b> had the nation's top triple jump last year despite a stress fracture in her big toe, so just imagine what she can accomplish now that she's healthy.

Two of the most important personalities in Erica McLain's track and field life are the Lucky Charms leprechaun and a stuffed Winnie-the-Pooh bear. McLain, a senior triple jumper and long jumper at Plano East High, is about as keep-to-herself as an 18-year-old can get, but she's very particular about her silent partners.

You see, Lucky Charms cereal is the last thing she ingests before thundering down the runway and launching herself into the gravity-defying flights that make her the nation's top scholastic triple jumper and among the best long jumpers.

Meanwhile, Pooh — who is so prominently displayed at meets that track and field Web site dyestat.com has christened him McLain's mascot — is the most important spectator. Adorned in every commemorative meet pin she's ever collected, Pooh sits perched in the drink holder of McLain's backpack, facing the pit. Of course, Pooh's pin collection is now rivaled by McLain's Lucky Charms box collection, which features the French version, a box from Jamaica she picked up during the 2002 Junior World Championships and a trio of U.S. editions.

"I always used to be so talkative when I was a kid, my dad (Kevin) used to call me ‘The Mouth,'" says McLain, a SchoolSports All-American who won the triple jump national title at both the Nike Indoor Championships (41 feet, 8.5 inches) and the adidas Outdoor Championships (43-1) as a junior. She also finished third in the long jump at both events.

"I like being by myself now; it's kinda weird. I like my quiet," continues McLain, whose leap of 43-1 last June at adidas was the nation's top scholastic mark in the triple jump during the 2003 season. "At school, everybody knows me, but they don't really know me. I don't stop and talk in the halls. My best friend (Jeisen Ramsey) goes to Plano West. I don't like to go out and party, and I don't miss it at all. My weeks are too crazy. I'm never home. I need my relaxation."

Considering the sensory overload she faces most of the time, it's no wonder McLain finds comfort in a collectibles hobby and a stuffed animal. Her workout and competition schedule is so intense, her idea of a rowdy night out is chaperoning a social for the mentally challenged kids she works with as part of her commitment to community service.

"I have such a good time with them — more fun than with kids my own age," says McLain, the two-time defending Class 5A state champ in the triple jump and two-time third-place finisher in the long jump. "Some people overlook them, but interacting with mentally challenged kids can be real cool."

McLain, who is headed to Stanford next year on a full track scholarship, is plenty familiar with the concept of challenges. She's been a competitive athlete since her family moved to Texas from Ohio before she started kindergarten. She logged 24 hours a week as a gymnast from ages 7 to 12, she figure skated competitively from 12 to 14, and she played youth basketball, soccer and softball along the way. By the time she picked up track in high school, her go-time intensity had reached full maturity.

"You work with so many different athletes as a coach, but she does have something different," says Plano East 10th-year track and cross country head coach Jerri Webb, 42. "She has a drive. It's the way she presents herself. The intensity she has sometimes is so great, you don't get to see the happy-go-lucky side. She hits that board and explodes. Others want it and can't do it. She wants it and wills herself to."

McLain's runaway success in track would have been awfully hard to predict considering her first day of practice as a freshman. So uncontrollably nervous about being outpaced by bigger and stronger high school athletes, McLain sat in the car bawling as her mom dropped her off.

"She had to help me out of the car I was crying so much," recalls McLain, 18, who has a 13-year-old sister, Kelsey. "I never realized how far it could take me. I didn't know people got full rides to college. It's the curiosity of what might come that keeps me in it now. It's taken me places I've never been, and I really like that."

She likes it so much that she's pushed herself through grueling private workouts (assigned to her by Texas Express Track & Field Club coach John Turek) without a training partner for the last four years. She's also pushed herself through excruciating pain, competing throughout last spring's district, regional and state meets with a stress fracture in her left big toe. At the time, the injury was diagnosed as turf toe.

"That took me and shook me and said: This is a winner," says Webb, a former McKinney High and Texas Tech half-miler. "She didn't need to do that. She'd already had the glory (winning the state triple jump title as a sophomore). But she kept jumping."

McLain's injury lingered into this year — she wore a boot cast the entire month of January — but it hasn't slowed her down. At February's Red Raider Invitational hosted by Texas Tech, her first major event this season, McLain won the triple jump with a leap of 41-3.25, more than a foot ahead of her nearest competitor, a collegian.

"Gosh almighty, where do you start when you're talking about this girl?" says coach Turek, 49, the cross country and track coach at St. Mark's School. "I'm in my 24th year of coaching and she's one of the nicest, brightest, most talented athletes I've ever worked with. She's been given a ton of talent, and she makes the most of it. I feel very fortunate to coach her because she comes eager to work and learn, she's focused, she's never intimidated and she's always ready to compete."

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