Woodbridge senior Chris Lockett is the top pole-vaulter in the Washington area and quite possibly in the state, having cleared 14 feet 6 inches this indoor season.

He also "snaked over," in his words, 14-7 outdoors last spring. His accomplishments show an improvement of more than four feet since he undertook the pole vault in the spring of his freshman year.

But this isn't a story of athletic achievement. It is a story of personal growth that surpasses anything he has accomplished in the athletic arena.

Ironically, though, it is probably something that can only be experienced through competitive situations.

"I looked in the mirror one day and said, 'You're a jerk, an idiot,' " said Lockett while icing his ankle in the training room at George Mason, where he had just won the pole vault and placed sixth in the triple jump in the George Mason Invitational.

He laughed, his blue-gray eyes crinkling at the corners. "I used to run through the woods behind my house when I was little, dodging the trees, and I never hurt myself. Now I do something like this here, in warm-up."

Lockett, at 6 feet and 167 pounds, tends to do things like running carefree through the woods. He speaks in that manner, his words tumbling from one subject to the other. He has grown up in a very competitively motivated family. His mother, Ann, played basketball in college and still coaches the sport at the Junior Olympics level. She also has coached several track greats including high jumper Paula Gervin and hurdler Benita Fitzgerald Brown.

"She's 51," Lockett said, "and she still lifts weights. She's got a little group that lifts three times a week in the basement. I think that's great."

Lockett's father played football, basketball, baseball and almost everything else in college. His brother started out running cross country this year, then switched over to band, where he made states.

At the George Mason Invitational, Lockett was almost disqualified after a rather expressive display of disapproval after a failed attempt at a higher height. That has always been his problem.

"I've kept my temper in check this year. I've done a lot of growing up this year," he said.

Before this year, though, his vaulting achievements were growing at a rate much greater than his maturation. As a freshman, he barely cleared 10-6. After attending an indoor camp at George Mason the next year, he soared over 13 feet practically overnight. Since then, he worked diligently at improving his craft. He lifted weights, ran, lifted some more. He even ran cross country, just to push his body to its limits.

But he spent little time adjusting to his success. Last year, the culmination of two years of a very unbalanced training regime took its toll. He failed and failed big.

"Last year I was mouthing off, walking around with a head out to here," he said, spreading his arms out on both sides of his head. "I was all cockiness, arrogance. Then, at the regionals, I couldn't clear opening height. I fell to pieces. Then I told myself to be calm, relax and prove next year that I'm not a loser. And most of all, quit acting like I'm a loser."

That's when he looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw. "My coach even disqualified me in a dual meet and told me to grow up now or I'd be forced to grow up in a big meet and that I wouldn't like it," Lockett said.

His brother has also had a great deal of influence on Lockett's previously untested emotional growth. "My brother's a really good Christian," he said. "And I figured my life was going nowhere, and he got me interested in Young Life. I've learned to relax and enjoy life more. My grades are up for once, not that they were ever that bad."

He stopped for a moment. Then, adjusting the ice again, said, "I'm still growing up. I've still got a ways to go, but I'm making improvements."

His vaulting continues to improve as well. He has worked his way up to longer and heavier poles, which translate into higher and higher clearances. Lockett knows his strengths and weaknesses. And, recalling a lapse in dedication last year, he turns to a tennis player for inspiration.

"Boris Becker says,'Forever forward,' " Lockett said. "Any time you quit forging ahead, you lose it and you can't maintain any progression."

Lockett would like to clear 16 feet before he graduates, and he enjoys the tantalizing thought of the dent in the record books such a clearance would leave. "I want to peak out at 16-4. The record is 15-3. But," he added, smiling, "I have to get over 15 first."