Just 18, Vashti Cunningham is poised to be world's best high jumper
This story first appeared in the June 6, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Entering through a doorway at the back of her family's ranch house on a dusty Las Vegas street, Vashti Cunningham walks through the kitchen and dutifully drops into a chair in the dining room. She is an 18-year-old senior at Bishop Gorman High, 1 1/4 inches more than six feet tall (and possibly still creeping north), thin as a sapling. Classes are done for the day, but practice has yet to begin and after that, church services and homework. First, she will squeeze in the latest in a series of interviews that accompany her status as a presumptive Olympian, with a Narrative Hook. She sits upright, as graceful in repose as her quarterback father and ballerina mother. A visiting reporter suggests that it would be O.K. to take off her backpack. Vashti blinks, opens her eyes wide and exhales, smiling—at last, a moment of rest. "Oh, yeah," she says, and slowly extracts herself from the backpack and falls into the chair. "Better."
Every day now is a blur, accelerating as the calendar surges toward summer. Vashti (pronounced VASH-tie)—the second of five children of groundbreaking NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and his wife, Felicity deJager, a native of South Africa and former professional ballet dancer—won the high jump at the U.S. indoor championships on March 12 with a clearance of 6'6 1/4", a world junior record and higher than any American woman has jumped (indoors or outdoors) in three years. Eight days later she won the world indoor title, in Portland, with a jump of 6'5". Says five-time U.S. Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff, "She's way ahead of the curve." The day after her world title, Vashti, who is coached by her father, formally bypassed college track and field and turned professional by agreeing to a contract with Nike.
In this, the year of her high school graduation, Vashti is a threat to become the youngest female American track and field individual Olympic medalist since Willye White 60 years ago. Her timing brings opportunity but also expectation and pressure. She has blown up in an Olympic year, in a sport that is desperate for stars. She checks a long list of backstory boxes: The child of an NFL celebrity (and of a tall dancer; some form of the phrase genetic lottery finds its way into most profiles written about her), she also satisfies our culture's fascination with precocity. Track and field, unlike swimming or gymnastics, usually requires some servitude from its athletes before doling out medals. Vashti is telegenic, charming and humble. The Olympic year presents a chance for commercial success, but just as readily, for early public failure. She will spend the summer growing up quickly on a very large stage.
"I think of her as a young Usain Bolt," says Chaunte Lowe, 32, the U.S. record holder in the high jump. "Everyone knew Bolt was going to be a superstar before he realized it. It's the same for Vashti. I'm talking about breaking records, doing things that nobody has ever done."
Others see Vashti's inexperience and suggest caution. "She's got a great opportunity, and it's up to her to run with it," says two-time Olympic high jump medalist Dwight Stones, the last, truly well-known high jumper in the U.S.—back in the mid-1970s, a bygone era of track and field popularity in the U.S. "But she's just a kid. And there's plenty of pressure on her, with her last name and everything she's already done."
If Vashti is worried, she hides it well. It is all so new and exciting. Only a year ago she no-heighted at the Nevada high school championships, an incomprehensible miss that she says she still thinks about before the first jump of every competition. Now she beams when she talks about the eight boxes of gear Nike sent her after she inked her contract, especially the colorful compression tights that came in a tiny, zippered case. She lights up when she mentions finally getting the opportunity to jump with, in her words, "other tall girls." (In high school, many of Vashti's opponents were shorter. "I always felt like I did not belong," she says, a sweet, vaguely surprising admission.) And she shines when she imagines looking into the stands on the night of the women's high jump final, Aug. 20, in Rio and seeing her family.
She was at a Junior Olympics meet in Texas during the 2012 London Games. She says that while many of the young athletes gathered in groups each night to view the Games, she watched alone. "I remember seeing [200-meter gold medalist] Allyson Felix and some gymnastics things," says Vashti. "I didn't even see the high jump. But the whole thing ... that was the first time I thought, I want to be a part of that."
A short drive from the Cunningham house is Remnant Ministries, the church that Randall and Felicity founded in 2003. Randall, who played in the NFL from 1985 to 2001 as a mold-breaking versatile quarterback, primarily with the Eagles and the Vikings, was ordained in 2004 after having his faith strengthened through conversations with All-Pro defensive end Reggie White. Randall is the pastor of the church, which he says has 1,400 members and another 1,200 who regularly watch Sunday services online. On this day he is sitting in the second-floor sound and lighting center, writing a sermon on his laptop.
Long before Cunningham was a quarterback in the NFL, he was a track star at Santa Barbara (Calif.) High. He cleared 6'9" in the high jump as a senior but stopped jumping when he developed knee problems that might have impeded his football career. His college, UNLV, also didn't have a men's track program. But Cunningham did not abandon his love of the sport. "There is a side to him that is all about football," says Felicity. "But he would much rather sit and watch a track meet than a football game." (The wildly busy Randall, 53, coaches a track club, the Nevada Gazelles—in addition to his own children in track and field—and the varsity football team at Silverado High.)
Randall and Felicity met in 1990 at an event called The Night of 100 Stars, at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Cunningham was playing for the Eagles, and Felicity was performing with the Dance Theater of Harlem. They were married in 1993. First child Randall II was born in 1996, Vashti two years later and Gracie, now 13, in 2003. Tragically, a second son, Christian, drowned in the family's Jacuzzi in 2010, at age two. The family's youngest child is Sofia, four, who toddled around Cunningham's desk as he wrote his sermon.
Randall II cleared 7'3" as a high school junior, best in the nation. It was while training his son that Randall first saw Vashti jump. "She was about nine years old and started messing around jumping," says Randall. "I thought, Oh, my goodness, she can jump too." Vashti competed in flag football, basketball, volleyball and multiple other track events (hurdles, 400 meters, long jump) before becoming a full-time high jumper last year.
Randall educated Vashti by downloading and showing her videos of accomplished high jumpers, including Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, a man who has cleared 7'11 1/2" and won the bronze medal in London; and Anna Chicherova of Russia, the women's gold medalist in London (who, according to her coach, was one of the 31 athletes whose retested sample from the 2008 Olympics was positive for a PED). "My father brought videos of [Croatian] Blanka Vlasic [the second-highest women's jumper in history] out to practice and showed me on his phone," says Vashti. "He would stop the video and say, 'Look at this.'" A quarterback at work in film study.
Vashti cleared 6'2 3/4" as a high school sophomore and 6'5" last summer to win the Pan American junior title in Edmonton. (Randall II also won gold there.) This year Vashti's 6'6 1/4" at the indoor nationals made her the 10th-best jumper in U.S. history. Only Lowe, with an American-record jump of 6'8 3/4" in 2010 and London Olympic silver medalist Brigetta Barrett, who cleared 6'8 1/4" in 2013, have gone higher since 2003. Vashti's winter performances piqued the interest of multiple shoe and apparel companies, whose contracts provide track athletes with their most stable (though often minimal) income.
Vashti sought advice from Lowe at a February meet in Albuquerque. Says Lowe, "I told her, 'If you go to college, are you going to be jumping so high that you're jumping alone?' I told her that two meters [6'6 3/4"] is pro height. Then at nationals she jumped 1.99 and I said, 'You're got your answer.'"
Says Randall, "To me it was a no-brainer. College is going to be there." (It has become increasingly common for U.S. track and field athletes to skip college, though it is still mildly controversial.) Randall's decision was likely influenced by his frustration with his son's lack of progress since entering USC in 2014. A 7'3" jumper in high school, Randall II has improved only to 7'5" in college and has struggled for consistency. "I hope he comes back here after NCAAs and trains with us," says Randall. "We do things a certain way." At his best Randall II can make the Olympic team.
Randall and Felicity, in addition to expanding Remnant Ministries, are building a house across the street from the church that will include an 1,800-square-foot weight room. Gracie, a 5'11" eighth-grader, has cleared 5'3" on a short, four-step approach, putting her on roughly the same trajectory as Vashti. It is unusual for a father to coach his child at the professional level. "It's not always a positive setup, but there are exceptions," says Sue Humphrey, USA Track & Field women's chair, and also a respected high jump coach who coached 1996 Olympic gold medalist Charles Austin, among many others. "Randall has his plan, and it's clearly been working."
Under a spring desert sun, father and daughter commence their workout with Vashti doing a series of three 80-meter sprints on an incline next to the track at UNLV. Vashti is a speed jumper—her strength is converting speed to height, rather than utilizing technique to make up for a lack of explosiveness. She runs like a sprinter, with a powerful knee lift driving her forward.
They move to the high jump pit and work through a series that begins with two scissor kicks over a low bar and ends with eight attempts at 6'5". It is a no-nonsense atmosphere. Randall lobs one joke about an old Gazelles backpack, but mostly he instructs his daughter on technique. She listens intently. They spar occasionally in knowing shorthand. "We argue sometimes, usually sarcastically," says Vashti. "My dad loves coaching me. He's very passionate." When Lowe first heard of Vashti's rise, she was told that Vashti's technique was raw. Says Lowe, "Then I saw her, and she's not green at all."
Says Humphrey, "I don't see major flaws. Every jump looks about the same." Stones says, "If I was asked, I would only have a couple, little technical things. Nothing major." A potentially more challenging issue is Vashti's lack of major championship experience heading into what would be her first Olympics. Last summer Randall sent Vashti and Randall II to the Pan Am juniors in Edmonton, though Vashti qualified for the senior world championships in Beijing. It would have been an opportunity for her to test-drive championship pressure against experienced athletes. "The travel, the call room, the warmup, the waiting," says Stones. "It's going to be an enormous leap for her."
Still, Vashti finds herself at a unique period in the high jump. As of late May only four Americans (Cunningham, Lowe, 21-year-old Rachel McCoy and 27-year-old Elizabeth Patterson) have achieved the Olympic A standard of 6'4" required to compete in the Games, regardless of the results of the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., in July. Inika McPherson, who is coming off a drug ban, jumped 6'5" in 2014, and Barrett hasn't jumped this season.
Internationally, Chicherova is 33 years old, and 2015 world champion Mariya Kuchina, also of Russia, may not be in Rio. (The entire Russian track-and-field team may be barred.) Vlasic is 32 and hasn't jumped higher than 6'8" since 2010. Ruth Beitia of Spain has a personal best of 6'7 1/2", but that is nine years old. For all the pressure on Vashti, and for all her inexperience, the field is wide open.
When an afternoon's jumping is done, Randall rolls the stanchions into a shed while Vashti puts on her warmups. As she walks across the track toward the parking lot and takeout from Whole Foods, Randall reemerges and sends her back to pick up some discarded paper cups, though she didn't drop them. "Doesn't matter," Randall says. "We leave it clean." Vashti rolls her eyes and stoically complies. Randall opens a gate and strides toward his car. "Just so you know," he says. "We're going for the gold."