Until a few weeks ago, 16-year-old gymnast Stephanie Neff wanted to attend UCLA, where Olympian and former teammate Kristen Maloney was a star.

But Maloney has finished her eligibility, and Neff was wowed by an April 18 unofficial family visit to the University of Utah, impressed by the mountains and a feeling of safety she got there.

Neff can't be blamed for wanting to feel safe after her ordeal in the air and staying alone with strangers on Sept. 11, 2001.

A senior international elite qualifier who hopes to gain a spot on the U.S. national team in a few months and who does four skills that no other gymnast in the world competes, Neff on Tuesday announced her verbal commitment to attend Utah on scholarship beginning Fall 2006.

The high school junior in Mesa, Ariz., who academically has ranked No. 1 in her class since her freshman year, said she will not change her mind, though the agreement is non-binding. She can't sign an NCAA letter-of-intent until at least late fall.

She still hopes to become a 2008 Olympian and discussed the possibility of continuing to train toward that with Utah coaches Greg and Megan Marsden.

Neff said she felt good around the Marsdens and the Ute team and liked the idea of living in Salt Lake City in her first extended time away from her parents.

"I want to be safe," she said by telephone Tuesday from Carter's Gymnastics Academy in Mesa, which was the reason the then-12-year-old was on an airplane as an unaccompanied minor on Sept. 11, 2001.

Neff, who grew up in Pennsylvania and had trained at Parkettes was on her way to Arizona to train with coaches Jack and Erin Carter, who had started their own gym after coaching Maloney and Neff at Parkettes. Jack Carter was also at one time a coach at Orem's All-American club owned by BYU coaches Brad and Dawn Cattermole.

She got on a plane alone early that fateful morning and, after some flight time, was told by a flight attendant that the plane was going to St. Louis for a stopover because, she was told, two planes had collided, and the airline wanted to be careful. Distressed because she wanted to go to Phoenix, she was held until last to get off the plane with the flight attendant, who took her to a U.S. Airways office, where her frightened parents were called. "I still had no idea" of the terrorist attack, Neff said, adding she finally found out while watching TV in the airport later.

She was given a choice by the airline — she could room in a hotel with a 19-year-old woman she had met only briefly on the plane, or she could stay with an airline ticket agent who had a 9-year-old daughter. She chose the ticket agent, who brought her to the airport every day for four days before she was able to get on the last plane that day to Phoenix — just as her father, Steve, reached Columbus, Ohio. He was driving to St. Louis to retrieve his daughter. He turned back upon a call from Carter, and she made it to Phoenix.

Steve asked for a transfer from his job at Fed Ex, and soon the whole family moved to Mesa, and her brother, also Steve, is now a wrestler at Arizona State.

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Carter calls Neff "the most-rounded athlete I've ever trained" because of her strength, grace and ability on all four events. And he's coached Maloney as well as Penn State's Kristal Uzelac, a junior national champion. "Compared to Maloney and Uzelac, she fares well," he said, calling her "gifted" as an athlete, student and overall person with a "gifted" body type as well.

Neff was 2002 Junior National all-around, beam and bars champion but battled a hamstring injury after that. She's OK now and sighting a national-team berth, having "a big chance of making it this time," she said. She also looks to make the world championship team, which she sees as possible. "I think so," she said.

If she can make the world team and compete, she could get any of her four unique moves - two on floor and two on bars - named for her before she officially becomes a member of the Utes.

E-mail: lham@desnews.com