Sky's the Limit

updated 09/04/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/2000 01:00AM

The streaked blonde hair. The butterfly tattoo on her back. The pierced belly button, the perfect tan, the heavy metal blaring in her boyfriend's SUV. Jennifer Parilla is, at first glance, the stereotypical, freewheeling California girl. "I'm not scaring you, am I?" she asks sweetly as she weaves speedily through freeway traffic, one hand on the steering wheel while she casually flips through CDs with the other. "I'm trying to drive really slowly."

But then what's a few heart-stopping lane changes to a woman who spends her days defying the laws of physics? The U.S.'s lone entrant in one of the newest Olympic competitions—trampolining—Parilla is out to prove that the sport she loves is really worth loving. "I'm happy for the chance to let people know that trampolining is a lot more than just backyard fun," says Parilla, who has won a total of 98 medals in the sport and is ranked fourth in the world. "I think when people see it on TV, it will become popular. It's exciting and beautiful."

Watching her execute double back-flips and twisting somersaults at heights up to 23 feet, it's hard to disagree. "She is a natural at this sport," says five-time world champ Judy Wills Cline, 52. "She has great lines in the air, and she looks as if she's floating down. It's her grace that makes her so special." At the Olympics, Parilla and her competition will soar off 7-by-14-ft. trampolines and perform two 30-second, 10-jump routines that are judged on precision and elegance. And though Russia's more experienced trampolinists are favored to take home the gold, they shouldn't be fooled by Parilia's surfer-girl vibe. Parilla, who eventually hopes to coach, has put off attending college for a year and is training four hours a day. "Jumping is fun for me and it always will be," Parilla says. "But it's different now. Everything I do is geared to Sydney—the way I eat, my sleeping, my training. I'm way focused."

Even when she was barely old enough to walk, little Jen was bouncing on beds and flying off sofas in her family's home in Lake Forest, about an hour south of Los Angeles. When she was 4, her father, Paul, a corporate litigator, and mother, Jan, a homemaker, put her and her brother Steve, 14 months older, in a gymnastics class. "And there it was in the corner—a trampoline," she says. "I just knew that's what I wanted to do." A year later she got a lesson as a birthday present. "You could tell she was good from the beginning," says her first and only coach, Robert Null. "Trampolining is like doing lots of diving tricks at once. You must have mental strength, and she does."

Parilla won her first major event, the World Age Group Games, in 1990, but it was at a 1998 meet in Poland that she truly turned the corner. When she made a mistake and quit mid-routine, a judge came over to chide her. "Now I never stop trying," she says. "I never hold back." To prepare for Sydney, Parilla—together with boyfriend Lionel Rangel, 36, whom she met last year at the gym he owns in Newport Beach—is on a strict low-fat diet; her goal, incredibly, is to shed 10 lbs. from her already compact 5'1", 120-lb. frame. "If I were a little lighter, I'd do better," she insists. "I'm working on it. I had egg whites and broccoli for breakfast. But, you know, I'm Italian. I'd rather have pasta."

Not that Parilla is all work and no play: On weekends she likes to jet-ski, boogie-board and go dancing with Rangel. They sometimes travel together to her international meets and recently got to spend four days on the Spanish island of Ibiza. As far as other payoffs, however, the sport isn't likely to provide big prize money anytime soon (though Parilla has a standing offer to join Cirque du Soleil). For now, Parilla—who lives with her parents and has decorated her entire bedroom in leopard prints—is motivated purely by her passion for hanging out. A couple of dozen feet above the earth, that is. "I love the freedom I feel in the air," she says. "It's like flying."

But, kids, don't try this at home. "Those backyard trampolines are dangerous," warns Parilla, whose worst competitive injury was a sprained ankle. "We have spotters and mats at each end, so it's safer. This is a serious sport, and a safe sport when done correctly." Now if she would only try driving with both hands on the steering wheel.

Alex Tresniowski
Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles

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