By SUNNY LOCKWOOD
The juggling bug bit Erin Stephens early.
She was just 10 when she got a juggling lesson in an after-school program and fell in love with the experience.
Until then, Stephens said, she'd been a little insecure. She had an older brother and two high-achieving parents. She enjoyed sports and had a reputation for being "incredibly determined."
But it wasn't until her hands closed on two white Styrofoam balls, and then opened to send them sailing in a rhythmic arc catching, tossing, catching, tossing that she felt the "this is it" thrill.
"I loved it," Stephens said. "The juggling teacher told me I had talent."
That talent developed as Stephens practiced in solitude.
"I didn't know any jugglers, and I never saw that (teacher) again," she said. But when she and her family took trips to Ashland, Ore., San Francisco or Santa Cruz Stephens would search toy stores for juggling balls and would practice in the aisles.
"That's where I'd run into other jugglers," she said. "They'd come up and ask 'Do you know this trick?' and then show me.
"And I'd have something else to practice."
She met a juggler at one of the Murphys Grape Stomps who showed her how to juggle clubs.
"He told me I was really good, and if I practiced, I could be better than he was," the 21-year-old said, her green eyes sparkling.
He also told her about a juggling festival in Lodi. She and her family went and discovered a world of jugglers.
"That festival changed juggling for me," she said.
"There were 250 jugglers there, and workshops. Before that festival, I was learning one trick here or there, and in Lodi, there were all these people doing what I loved. I just got so inspired."
After the festival, Stephens met Rick Harper of Mokelumne Hill, an adult advanced juggler who worked with Calaveras High School students.
"A mutual friend introduced us," said Harper, who makes his living as a carpenter. "We worked on tossing clubs back and forth in a juggling pattern. She had great enthusiasm, and she was so consistent. She just kept practicing and practicing. That's why, now, she's better than I am."