Cal Track and Field: Inika McPherson Chasing Her Second Trip to the Olympics

At 34 years old and just 5-foot-4, the 2009 Cal grad is an unlikely but legit contender.
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Don’t tell Inika McPherson she is too old to make a return trip to the Olympics.

Don’t tell her she’s too short to make the U.S. team in the high jump.

McPherson is 34 years old and just 5-foot-4, but she has big plans for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials, which get under way on Friday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

“Oh yeah, definitely. We’re definitely going to Tokyo,” she said.

A 2009 graduate of Cal, McPherson finished 10th at the 2016 Rio Games, earning the distinction of being the shortest woman ever to qualify for an Olympic high jump final.

Inika McPherson at the 2016 Rio Olympics

Inika McPherson shows her passion at the Rio Olympics.

The high jump prelims are Friday with the final set for Sunday and McPherson needs a top-3 finish to make the Olympic team. She finds motivation everywhere, starting with the notion that she’s a little long in the tooth.

And it’s true that American Vashti Cunningham, ranked No. 1 in the world, was only 4 years old when McPherson earned her first national ranking at the age of 15.

But it also fuels McPherson that Ruth Beitia of Spain was 37 years old in 2016 when she soared over 6 foot, 5 1/2 inches to claim the gold medal medal at Rio.

“I beat her a month later,” McPherson said. “I feel like I’m at the stage where I am still excelling and getting better.”

McPherson points to Justin Gatlin, who sprinted to gold in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Games and this week will try to make his fourth Olympic team. He is 39.

McPherson — the only current or past Cal athlete competing at Eugene — is a testimony to perseverance and self-belief.

She arrived in Berkeley from Port Arthur, Texas in the fall of 2005 after a high school career during which her clearance of 6 feet as a freshman placed her No. 11 in the U.S. rankings. She eventually won a Texas state title and scaled 6-2 as a senior, climbing to No. 7 on the yearly national listings.

From 2011 through ’19, she was ranked No. 2 in the high jump in the U.S. six different years. She made the World Championships for the first time in 2011, two years after her fourth-place finish at the NCAAs her senior season at Cal.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for McPherson, who was suspended for 21 months after testing positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, at the 2014 nationals. The penalty included wiping out her results at the meet, which she won with a personal-best clearance of 6-6 3/4.

Two years later, having earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, McPherson told the USA Today she learned a painful lesson and had moved forward.

"I think everyone should march to their own beat, just really live life. But I came to the point where I was harming myself and my dreams," she said. "My mom was concerned at the beginning, 'What's going on in your life that you would test for that? But we sat down and talked.

"Not to put it on the people I was around, but I turned into one of those people. I was hanging out with the wrong crew, going a different route. I'm thankful for that whole experience, because I can share that so others won't have to go through that."

McPherson is feeling entirely positive about her life these days. She recently recorded a song, “Win,” which talks about pursuing your goals and is available on Apple and Spotify. And she credits her mother, Symanthia McPherson, for being a great source of support and her biggest fan.

She has been training in Atlanta with high jump specialist Nat Page of Georgia Tech, who helped coach Chaunte’ Lowe Howard to four Olympics and two American records.

“He’s a high jump technician, one of the greatest on the planet,” McPherson said. “I’ve learned a lot over the last two years. He’s old school — keeps everything simple. It’s been great training with him.”

McPherson’s personal best is 6-foot-5, which is 13 inches beyond her height. Last season was pretty much lost to the COVID-19 pandemic and this season, after dealing with a sore left takeoff knee in early, she has been building toward Eugene. McPherson jumped a season-best 6-2 3/4 in Tucson last month.

That marks ranks her fifth on the 2021 U.S. leaders list, which is topped by Cunningham — the 23-year-old daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham — who has a season best of 6-7 1/2.

McPherson is 11 years older and 10 inches shorter than Cunningham. The field in Eugene also includes 19-year-old Rachel Glenn, coming off an NCAA championship as a freshman at South Carolina.

But McPherson — the third-oldest jumper among ranked among the top-75 in the world — shows no fear. She plans to compete at least through 2022, when the World Championships will be held at Eugene, the meet’s first-ever visit to the U.S.

But her entire focus right now is on this weekend and earning a trip to Tokyo.

“I feel absolutely great,” said McPherson. “I feel like whatever goal you have, as long as you have a burning desire and are willing to take in others’ knowledge and keep your faith, you can do anything.”

Cover photo of Inika McPherson by Kirby Lee, USA Today

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo