The game was slipping away until Erin Aldrich put her foot down. Her long, strong, pogo-stick legs can be as dominant a weapon in her chosen fields as the arm of Pedro Martinez is in his. Aldrich is not only a three-time NCAA champion in the high jump but also a potential All-America middle blocker for Texas's No. 12-ranked volleyball team.
In either role she separates herself from her peers, as she did on Oct. 30 in a Big 12 volleyball match in Austin. Kansas was throwing a scare at the Lady Longhorns until Aldrich, a 6'2" senior, asked teammate Jill Gremmel to just set her the damn ball. Moments later Aldrich was spiking Texas to a 14-13 lead, then killing again for a side-out that allowed the Longhorns to clinch a 3-0 victory.
"I'm convinced Erin could be the best volleyball player who has ever played in this country," says Texas coach Jim Moore. "She's so good already, and she only does it four or five months a year. She has gifts for volleyball that no one has ever had."
Aldrich's spectacular array of skills includes an obvious talent for spiking, as well as an uncanny ability to dig out saves. If Aldrich devoted herself full time to volleyball, she could become the equivalent of a basketball giant who plays in the backcourt, runs the floor and dunks on everyone. Aldrich, though, is not so sure. She admits she has trouble adapting to the social requirements of a team sport. "I find myself in volleyball being so focused on what I need to do, and a little bit closed off from my teammates," she says.
Instead of trying to play her way onto the U.S. volleyball team in time for next September's Olympic Games, Aldrich hopes to make it to Sydney as a high jumper—a lonelier path. Her decision comes after years of experimenting. While some athletes draw strength from their teammates, she prefers to rely entirely on herself. A Garbo in spikes, she wants to jump alone.
Aldrich has been a type A kid ever since she was a grade-schooler playing soccer in Dallas, according to her father, John Aldrich, a real-estate developer. Erin's athletic pedigree comes from her grandfather, Ki Aldrich, who was an All-America center and linebacker at Texas Christian in the 1930s before following teammate Sammy Baugh to the Washington Redskins for a 10-year NFL career. "She was one of the better players on every team she was on, but we had no idea she was a world-class talent," her father says. That changed in 1993, when her parents drove her to Austin for the Texas Relays, at which—as a 15-year-old ninth-grader—Aldrich won the statewide high school division in the high jump.
That same year she began playing volleyball. Though she enrolled at Arizona on a volleyball scholarship, the high jump was her obsession. After her high jump coach, John Rembao, left Arizona in the summer of 1997 to become an assistant at Texas, Aldrich followed him to Austin on a volleyball scholarship. "At Arizona some people tended to think of her as standoffish, which she wasn't," Rembao says. "She was just so into what she was doing as an athlete."
For a month or so last spring, having helped Texas earn three straight NCAA track and field titles—two of them indoors—Aldrich tried to find out what she had been missing. With friends, she went out to bars and clubs on Austin's Sixth Street. She blames this "loss of focus" for her failure to win the NCAA outdoor championship in June. She finished fifth, even as her team was winning its fourth successive title.
"I let other things get into my head, silly things—relationships, trying to make everybody happy," she says. "I was having a lot of fun, but then I just kind of caught myself. I said, I can't be like a regular college student. I can't do things mat normal college students do, because I'm not normal."
Aldrich has decided to sacrifice short-term happiness for long-term fulfillment. "I do believe and hope mat I can hold the world record in the high jump," she says. The world mark of 6'10�" is held by Stefka Kostadinova of Bulgaria; Aldrich's best mark outdoors is a mere 6'4". (Last year she equaled the NCAA indoor record of 6'5�".) "Her best years will be six, seven, eight years from now," says Rembao, who coached his wife, Sue, to the 1992 Olympics. "Basically, Erin's going to have to jump 10 inches over her head to break the world record. My wife is 5'9", and she jumped eight inches over her head. I love my wife, but Erin's a much better athlete than my wife was, and she's way more aggressive. I've never in my life met somebody as competitive as Erin."