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Up, Up and Away

updated 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/14/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tall and skinny may be a good combination for models and women who date Donald Trump, but for self-conscious adolescents it can be a terrible trial. Just ask Olympian Amy Acuff, who from age 12 to 15 grew about four inches a year, surpassing six feet before she turned 16. "All my pants became Capri pants without any tailoring," she says. "I was so skinny, kids would be cruel and make fun of me. I'd be going to class and hear stuff like, 'Amy, why don't you eat something?' People thought I was anorexic."

Acuff still gets plenty of attention, only now it's for the height of her leaps, not her pants. A sleek and sinewy 6'2" and 150 lbs., the Sydney-bound Acuff, 25, is one of the world's best high jumpers. She is also a part-time print-and-runway model who has shown up at track meets in eye-catching fur-trimmed tops and briefs, doubled for Daryl Hannah on a movie poster and produced a calendar that showed her covered in nothing but body paint. "I'm at the point in my life where my body is at its peak performance level," says the radiantly blonde Acuff of her sexy and controversial 2000 Calendar of Champions. "I'm interested in documenting that, so when I'm older and wrinkly and carrying a spare tire I'll have something to look back at."

With luck, her memory chest will also contain a coveted Olympic medal. While noting that Acuff's results this year "have been spotty," commentator Dwight Stones observes, "She has all the God-given talent in the world." A professed bookworm who pulled a 3.3 GPA as a premed student at UCLA while ranking among the world's Top 5 high jumpers, Acuff—whose career-best jump is 6'6¾", 3½" under the world record set in '87—wants to redeem her injury-plagued 21st-place finish at the '96 Games in Atlanta. "The Olympics are a huge deal for her," says her boyfriend Brian McLaughlin, a 23-year-old UCLA senior and pole-vaulter. "She puts every ounce of energy she has into training, and she monitors everything she eats. She won't say, 'I'm having a steak for dinner.' She says, 'I want a big pile of protein.' "

Those voracious eating habits—three bowls of cereal and fruit for breakfast and a half pound of meat or poultry for dinner—reflect the freaky metabolism that has always allowed her to look like Laurel while chowing down like Hardy. As a child growing up in Corpus Christi, Texas, "I could eat everything," says Acuff. A tomboy who tagged along with her older brother Bryan, now 28, and his pals, Acuff was just 6 years old when her father, Richard, 56, an engineer and former college long jumper, introduced her to track and field; by 10, she was a national age-group record holder in the long jump. Her pastime became a passion following a family vacation at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. "Amy got some autographs and caught the bug," says her mother, Jacqueline, 55, an English teacher. "She really wanted to go to the Olympics after that."

For college Acuff chose UCLA, where, inspired by her colorful idol, the late sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, she first took to wearing custom-made Anne Klein fur tops and briefs. Ranked 10th in the world as a sophomore, Acuff tore ligaments in her foot at the 1996 Olympics but still learned valuable lessons in Atlanta. For instance, "I'll probably skip the opening ceremonies" in Sydney, she declares. "Standing in sweltering heat is the last thing you want to do with your body-before an Olympics."

That go-her-own-way attitude allowed Acuff to brush off criticism her calendar received from Olympic gold medal heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who found its racy photos exploitative. "It shatters the stereotype of the bulky, masculine female athlete," says Acuff, who produced the calendar to draw more attention to track and field.

Long-term, she envisions a career in the medical field, but for now the avowed homebody loves her life in sunny L.A. "I have a long couch, and it's warped in the middle," she says. "What I like about my boyfriend is that he's content not to drag me out to places all the time. I like peaceful things, like drawing." Sydney should be excitement enough.

Alex Tresniowski
Lorenzo Benet in Los Angeles

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