Vashti Cunningham remembers watching the London 2012 Olympic Games in her hotel room each night after competing in the most important meet on her own calendar.
“I just thought it was really cool that we were at Junior Olympics and they were at the real Olympics,” Cunningham said. “I didn’t really think much of how big the difference is. I thought, ‘This is just like track for older people.’”
Now Cunningham realizes the Rio 2016 Olympic Games could be track for people like her: 18-year-old world champions in the high jump.
“I want to win,” she said.
Such a lofty goal is not just pie in the sky for this high jumper.
On March 20, Cunningham became the youngest female athlete to win an IAAF World Indoor Championships title in any event. She was the only competitor in Portland, Oregon, to clear 6 feet, 5 inches (1.96 meters) without a miss. Ruth Beitia of Spain, who is twice her age, won the silver.
Cunningham was slightly disappointed she didn’t surpass her winning height of 6-6 ¼ (1.99 meters) from the U.S. nationals eight days earlier in Portland. That mark still ranks as the 2016 world leader – indoor or outdoor -- and is also the world under-20 indoor record.
“I still want to clear my highest every single time I jump,” said Cunningham, who stands 6-1¼, “but I was content with winning and I was content with having a clean slate all the way through the jumping.”
Besides her gold medal, the Las Vegas high school senior won some new fans.
“A lot of people have been commenting on my pictures, ‘I used to cheer for your dad and now I’m cheering for you,’” Cunningham said.
Her dad is Randall Cunningham, who played quarterback in the NFL for 16 years – primarily with the Philadelphia Eagles – and was known as “the Ultimate Weapon.” A former high jumper, Randall Cunningham is Vashti’s coach and runs a club team called the Nevada Gazelles.
He also coached his son, Randall II, who now competes for the University of Southern California, turning down football scholarship offers to focus on his Olympic dreams. Randall II jumped 7-5 in January – which is 10 inches over his head.
“I was self taught,” said the elder Cunningham, “and what I did with them is I cleaned up all the garbage so they don’t look like I used to.”
He cleared 6-10 in high school and figures he could have gone 7-2 had he finished his high school season.
“I took the football scholarship,” Randall Cunningham said, “and it worked out.” He appeared in four Pro Bowls, was the Pro Bowl MVP in 1988 and retired after the 2001 season.
When he saw that his kids could jump, “that love (for the high jump) came right back like I had never left it,” he said.
After studying film of athletes from Russia, East Germany, Croatia, Ukraine and Poland, “I designed a plan that best fits what we do in the sun of Las Vegas,” said Cunningham, who is also pastor at Remnant Ministries. “They train hard and they don’t take for granted what God has given them. What they do is they listen to their old papa and they do what they’re supposed to do. We put a plan together based on the experience that I have through wisdom, and it works.”
Vashti and Randall II carry not only their dad’s genes, but also those of their mom, Felicity, a former ballet dancer.
“When you look at the way they’re built, they’re rangy, but they’re strong,” said Randall Cunningham. “When you’re jumping, you’re using every part of being a contortionist, a person of speed and strength, and technique.”
However, Vashti originally wanted to be a hurdler when she joined the track team in the fourth or fifth grade. “I just liked running,” she said. “I didn’t really think much of the high jump. It was just another event that I did.”
Vashti also long jumped and competed in all three events at the Junior Olympics. She even played some flag football, where she showed a flair for throwing.
Yet when her talent in the high jump emerged, her father told her to take it more seriously. He also taught her how to deal with pressure and distractions.
“There were kids who would say, ‘Miss it! Miss it!’” he said, “and she’d hear that and be like, ‘Why would somebody do that when you’re competing?’ It doesn’t change; there are people who wish against you.”
Vashti also did not like hearing rhythmic clapping and would tell everybody to be quiet in practice. Randall got everyone on the team to start clapping to get her used to it.
“Someone started clapping at U.S. Indoors and that catapulted her higher than she’s ever jumped, so she handled that pressure when it’s there,” he said. “I’ve always told her, ‘Look, you’re 18 years old, there’s no pressure on you. The pressure’s on everyone else. People are going to say you’re young and can’t handle pressure. I said, ‘Oh, no, we won’t fail that test, that’s a test that we will always pass.’”
Vashti likes having her father just down the hall at home and with her on the track.
“He’s been through it already, so he knows what to tell me to do,” she said. “He tells me to basically just stay humble, just keep working hard and focus on what I’ve been doing and what I have to do.”
Randall Cunningham said the goal is jumping 6-7 early this year, then set the goal higher, while Vashti has her sights set on 6-8 right off the bat.
She said that clearing the bar “feels like you’re just floating. I don’t see anything. It just blanks out in my mind.”
And after landing in the pit and seeing the bar hasn’t moved, “You just feel very relieved,” she said.
Vashti was also relieved to make a decision about her future. She is now the second Cunningham to turn pro. Randall Cunningham laid all the cards on the table for his daughter, who had been considering Georgia, Oregon and USC for college. Vashti actually decided to forgo the rest of her high school career and all of college track before the world championships. After her victory, she announced that she had signed with Nike.
“It was kind of a hard decision, but then after I kept progressing through the year, I realized that it would be better for me to go pro,” said Vashti, who was also besieged with other endorsement offers.
Last year could have been her breakthrough year on the world scene. Although she finished 2015 tied for the No. 9 world ranking with five other athletes, Vashti did not attempt to make the outdoor world championships team or even compete at the U.S. senior nationals. Instead, she and Randall II made their goal the Panamerican Junior Championships.
“We both wanted to make the team together and Lord willing, we both wanted to win gold,” Vashti said. “And then when it happened, it was just fun for both of us.”
That was her first international medal. Then she was ready to take on the rest of the world.
“I know how great they are,” Vashti said of her more experienced rivals. “I’ve watched them and I’ve been in awe of how they jump, but I just focus on me.”
In February, Vashti went up against Chaunte Lowe for the first time at a meet in New Mexico. Vashti and Lowe, who holds the American record of 6-8 ¾ outdoors (2.05 meters) and was the 2012 world indoor champion, both jumped 6-4 ¾ (1.95 meters), but Vashti won on countback.
“After the competition, they hugged and exchanged phone numbers,” Randall said. Without that relationship with Lowe, a three-time Olympian and 32-year-old mother of three, he said, “Vashti wouldn’t be able to have the insight that she has.”
At that meet, Vashti realized that the indoor world championships were within her reach. But she allowed that “not even last year or the year before would I have thought that” she would win the gold medal.
“It hasn’t really clicked yet,” she said. “My friends congratulate me and then we go back to what we’ve been doing and act like nothing happened, basically.”
Vashti plans to compete at the Mt. SAC Relays April 14-16 in Norwalk, California, where Randall II will also jump, and in the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, a Diamond League meet. The rest of the schedule is up in the air. “The meet directors have been calling us,” Randall said.
Two of the top high jumpers in the world are Russian, Anna Chicherova and Maria Kuchina, but their track and field team is currently suspended because of a doping scandal and it is unknown if they will be reinstated in time for Rio.
Randall Cunningham hopes to someday take photos with the Russians, as well as Croatia’s Blanka Vlasic and some top male jumpers. “I’m the fan over there,” he said. “I’m trying to get a picture and an autograph.”
He knows a good photographer: his daughter. Vashti hopes to pursue photography and plans to take some seminars to further her education.
Her favorite photo is of her friend, Ray, who has his own clothing store at a local mall. It was raining and the street was wet.
“I said, ‘Let’s take a picture of you jumping and you try to be as still as you can in the air,’” Vashti said. “It looked like he was floating.”
She knows the feeling.