DES MOINES, Iowa -- Vashti Cunningham doesn’t cut herself any slack.
After Cunningham misses twice at a high jump height – meaning she has only one attempt left – her inner voice is brutal.
“’Vashti, if you don’t do this, you suck.’ That’s what I’m telling myself in my head,” she said. “’This is the last one, you have to make it.’”
On Saturday she did. The 2016 Olympian cleared a season-best 1.95 meters (6 feet, 4 ¾ inches) to defend her national title at the USATF Outdoor Championships at Drake Stadium and move into a tie for 10th on the world list.
For the second year, Cunningham, 20, swept the indoor and outdoor national crowns in the women’s high jump.
Inika McPherson, who cleared 1.92 (6-3 ½), placed second and Liz Patterson was third at 1.89 (6-2 ¼) at the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
But if Cunningham was irritated by her first two attempts at 1.95, she was beside herself after failing to clear her opening height of 1.83 (6-0). After all, that height is usually a gimme since the bar is one inch shorter than she is.
“Man, I’m trying to have that never happen again,” Cunningham said with a laugh. “I was definitely a little salty for that one.”
It happened after she and her father, Randall Cunningham – the former NFL quarterback who is also her coach – had a discussion about her marks.
Her father, who sits in the stands near the high jump, always helps his daughter with her placement of the marks. This time, she thought she needed to move them out a little so she wouldn’t risk missing her first jump.
“He was like, ‘Nah, don’t move out a little,’” Vashti said. “Then I go and I miss, and I said, ‘I’m moving out.’ Then I make it and I come back and say, ‘This is what happens when you listen to me. Come on, we’re a team.’”
She said they don’t really have disagreements because she trusts him as a coach. But Vashti also trusts what her body is telling her.
“I’m just happy that he knows to listen to me now,” she said.
After missing that first attempt, Vashti took a long walk down the field.
“I’m real hard on myself,” she said. “I was like, ‘That is not you. You can’t come into the competition like that.’ So I was just talking to myself. ‘Make it.’ Even after I made the second attempt, I still had to take a long walk and really relax myself and just get back on the same page.’”
She said Randall is more positive. When Vashti laments that she missed a height, her father replies that she’s “going to make it, no problem.”
“And I’m just like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t have to get to this point,’” Vashti said.
And even after she clears a height, she doesn’t compliment herself, or say, “Way to go, Vashti!”
“When I make it, of course I’m thinking about the little flaws,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Dad is that OK? All right. Next!’”
After clearing 1.95, Cunningham took three tries at 1.98 (6-6) with no success.
For more than two years, she has been flirting with the 2-meter mark, which apparently wants nothing to do with her.
Cunningham posted her personal best of 1.99 (6-6 ¼) at the 2016 U.S. indoor championships, which was the world junior record and set her up for her first world indoor championship.
Last year, the Las Vegas native cleared 1.99 outdoors to win her first national title and set the American junior outdoor record.
“My goal, of course, is to break the 2.0 barrier, which seems to be just like not my best friend,” she said. “We seem to be a little bit of rivals, but I’m going to come back and whip that eventually.”
Cunningham said her goal is to stay healthy throughout the whole season and build her mental strength.
She has been inspired by her older brother Randall II, who suffered a fracture while planting his leg at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He had already clinched the high jump title for the University of Southern California when the accident occurred.
Cunningham said the way her brother has conducted himself “during his trial of breaking his leg and rehabbing picked me up and made me ready for everything that I’m going through this season. It just motivates me to keep going.”
She was also thrilled to report that his recovery is ahead of schedule. “He was cleared to run,” she said. “I’ve seen videos of him running circles on the track, just getting ready to get back in the season. He’s going to come back stronger than anybody’s ever seen.”
Cunningham said she’s grown in strength as well as mental maturity the past couple of years.
She’s also changed her look. She lets her hair flow freely even if it sometimes gets into her eyes, and she has asserted her independence by adding some tattoos in the offseason.
“I’m really into body art,” Cunningham said. “I’ve been drawing on myself since I was a little kid and my dad was always telling me, ‘You’re never getting tattoos.’ And I grew up and I was like, ‘I’m getting tattoos.’
“I’m just like, ‘This is me.’”
The number “4” on her hand stands for her siblings, while the Roman numerals on both forearms represent the dates her younger brother was born and passed away.
Vashti also has a band around her lower bicep.
“Everything that I have on my body has meaning in my life,” she said.
However, Cunningham doesn’t expect to match McPherson, who has more than 30 tattoos in addition to piercings.
“I think she’s dope,” Cunningham said. “I think that she rocks it. She has her own reasons for everything, too.”
Cunningham plans to compete in Europe later this season and also has her eye on Doha, Qatar, for next year’s world championships and then the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She was 13th in Rio after failing to clear her second height.
“Tokyo, I’m so excited,” Cunningham said. “It’s a really great place for fashion. I’m ready to go out there and spend my money.”
Thanks to another national title, she has more in her wallet.