'Yes [the bar] taunts you:' Next great Cunningham readies for takeoff in Rio
High jumper Vashti Cunningham has already signed with Nike and could contend for gold in Rio
LAS VEGAS -- Right arm hangs in a checked dangle. Left arm is bent at a 90-degree angle and partially covering her spare torso. Eyes on the foe: that delicate, goading bar. She stares at it, and it peers back. She oscillates a few times, toes to heels, homing in balance and acquiring an assured state of mind as she's waiting for her left, back heel to fall just perfectly on itself, allowing her spindly body to click into launch ...
There it is.
She is revved. She has found the feel.
Now the click.
With her right leg in front -- heel up -- and her left leg behind -- the tops of her toes white with pressure -- she drops her head, springs from her stance and releases. Her quads clench then thrust, her arms pump in full, elbows sharply angled upward, stabbing above her dipped neck. That's the groove; her body's a go.
It'll be nine steps now. Exactly nine, every time. No skips, no gallops. The first three steps are stutter-like, close together, fast and bursty. The transition to steps four and five come with longer strides. Her back straightens as her angle bends in what's known as the J-curl approach. She's halfway to liftoff, her path veering from straight to left.
Her power builds but her speed is fixed. She collects herself as the bar becomes closer, and when it gets closer, that means it gets higher. That damn bar. Simple from afar, taunting after launching, daunting on approach and sometimes seemingly three times as big by liftoff. But that bar hasn't changed, hasn't moved, still isn't moving and if all goes right -- which is to say, if all goes practically perfectly -- it's going to stay that way.
The final four steps are half-strides, a coiling from the waist down, with the most important release coming from the ankles. Her body is nearing its almost-180-degree adjustment from where it started less than three seconds ago. By step seven, the arms no longer swing. On the penultimate step, with her right leg, both arms are pulled backed for the foist. Her body -- still grounded but ready to torque -- is faced perpendicular to the bar but her head is still canting at the rod, which is perched many inches above her head. On the jump, the final release -- an uncorking. Complete trust and, literally, blind faith. The bar is behind-slash-below her. She's turning horizontal speed into vertical power.
So here we go: Right arm up. Left leg fires. Right leg juts, the knee bends, and with that, the body follows. Then, a curl of the neck. The back mimics with its arching. As the nape of her neck flings past the bar, her left arm is parallel to the beam. Centripetal force moves up through her thighs, abdomen, chest, shoulders, arms then wrists.
She's still rising.
Her body unfurls as the laws of physics keep her heave true. Lift the hips, get the butt up. Keep rising, keep dodging, keep praying that bar as low as it will go. Don't flirt with it. Even a tickle could give it a tumble. Thrust the waist, flip the legs, embrace the fall. Coming down, her back straightens and as it does, her upper body is falling as her lower body continues to elevate. Her legs go vertical a split second after her popliteals clear the beam. She's headed for the mat.
Where's the bar?
First: boof. Land, then pop up with a reverse somersault. All clean, all clear. And there's the bar -- still in place.
This entire process takes less than five seconds. This is what Vashti Cunningham will show off to the world next week, when she competes for a gold medal in women's high jump.
"I'm waiting or my body to throw itself forward, to let itself go," Cunningham says. "I don't remember what happens when I jump. I don't see. My mind blanks and then I suddenly land."
This is what the future of high jumping looks like.
That is Cunningham in March, less than two months after her 18th birthday, setting a junior world record by jumping 1.99 meters (6 feet, 6.25 inches) in Portland. That jump was the 10th highest by any American woman at any event in history. Her title not only set a new junior world record, she also became the youngest gold medal winner ever in indoor high jump. And she could have cleared an even higher height if necessary.
Cunningham turned pro and signed with Nike the next day. On July 3, she qualified for Rio. She's the second-youngest track and field Olympian in 36 years. Cunningham has become one of the sensational Olympic stories this summer; when she jumps next week, she can become the ninth American woman ever to clear 2 meters.
But this is expected to only be the start. Because Cunningham -- the daughter of one of the most riveting NFL talents ever -- could have the genes, legs and work ethic to break barriers and eventually be known as an undeniable, special high-jump talent.
Maybe, in time, the best ever.
The name "Vashti" (pronounced Vash-tie) comes from the Bible. While there is some ambiguity regarding the meaning, many scholars tie the etymology of "Vashti" to an old Persian word for "the best." In the Bible, Vashti was also passionately self-reliant and unapologetic in her beliefs.
Cunningham takes after her namesake in many ways. She splits between dogged, poker-faced competitor and a fiercely independent, spontaneous, creative mind. In high school, she would often get grief for not paying attention in class, consistently opting instead to draw during lectures. She didn't completely jibe with her art teacher because she found the class -- an art class -- entirely too rigid. She is steadfast in her expressive independence, of not wanting to be like anyone in appearance or personality.
"I get really mad when people dress the same as me," Cunningham says in the kitchen of her parents' Las Vegas home. "We all need to be different so the world can be a more colorful place."
We sit at the table -- and as she occasionally spins her iPhone, face down, allowing the stickied, heavily taped "I LOVE YOU" note from her boyfriend to show -- Cunningham eases into another one-on-one interview.
"I'm not really the type of person to be starstruck by stuff like this," she says. "I really don't like interviews, or at least the beginning of them."
But like with her routine, she finds the groove pretty quickly. Then she's off. This is the latest of more than a dozen sit-downs she's done with national or international media outlets in the three-plus months since her world and life changed forever. In the lead-up to Rio, Vashti has received more press and attention than any other American Olympian without Olympic experience, save for one huge exception: Simone Biles. (Who might have more pressure on her than any American at the Games.)
"She doesn't freak out, doesn't get overly excited," Randall said of his oldest daughter and second of four children. "She keeps everything in perspective and her goals are very high."
Vashti loves listening to Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Birdy (a UK indie rock artist). She tabs Serena Williams, Alyson Felix and Kobe Bryant as her biggest sports idols. She's a homebody and a self-described "huge germophobe" who is even wary of hotel showers. Thrift stores and Target are her preferred social destinations; her wardrobe and passion for fashion run in contrast to her repetitious training regimen. Her flare for photography and artful originality is at odds with a head-down discipline for high jump, which has included years worth of five-days-a-week conditioning. Dad is the superstitious one, going so far as to not wanting Vashti to change the color of her spikes.
"She's high-strung, she's a lot like me, so I see my personality in her," Randall said. "You tell her what she can't do, oh she'll go and prove you wrong. Her energy level goes to a whole other level. She doesn't need anybody patting her on her back. Sometimes I have to use reverse psychology on her."
Those methods were worked on him, specifically in college.
"We don't let our stuff out of the bag," Randall said of his war secrets for his daughter's Olympic training. "Strategy is important to us. How we go into a track meet, what we expect. She always excels in that."
High jumping, for all of its tense glamour, is not a sport that opens itself up to originality or artistry. The Fosbury Flop, one of the more revolutionary techniques in all of sports in the past 50 years, has essentially made the high jump look basic and predictable to most untrained eyes, to those who even watch just a few minutes of the event at the Olympics every four years.
Vashti can change that. Nike believes so, anyway. First, there is the obvious connection to her father, who was an NFL MVP in 1998 with the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings and, for more than a decade, an innovative, improvisational quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles. Randall is his daughter's coach. Though he'll forever be tied to football, he has a deep, long affair with track and field. He competed in high school, and if not for a knee injury, it's possible he could have continued to be a track star in college.
"I'm so used to a team sport, like football, that when you finally get the opportunity to compete as an individual, when you have to win an individual race or event, it draws something different out of you," he says. "You're not relying on a guard or a trickle or a power forward, a pitcher. You're relying on yourself."
In March, Vashti's record-setting jump put her on the route to Rio. It also immediately opened up professional opportunities. She had desires of competing at the college level, but was that path going to work right away for her?
"I do like to learn, but this is not what I want to do," Vashti said when recalling conversations with her mom about her senior year of high school. "She says, 'You need to push yourself,' and I'm like, 'Mom, I've been like this since I was in elementary school."
Maybe that's why she ultimately opted to skip eligibility for college competition. Or maybe Vashti just likes clearing hurdles as often as possible. She is opinionated, and she always makes sure she is having a two-way conversation with her parents.
"I always see things differently from my dad," she said. "Sometimes we butt heads but it's not really personal. My relationship with dad is strong but competitive. He's just like me, or, I'm just like him. Sometimes he doesn't believe what I feel; sometimes I don't believe what he feels."
In addition to coaching high school football in Las Vegas and being a part-time pastor, Randall runs a track and field club team, the Nevada Gazelles. The roster is nearly 50 athletes deep, all of them high school-age. Seventeen of them -- finalists for nationals in Sacramento -- are at Cunningham's house the day I show up. They're training in 112-degree heat on an unbearable July afternoon in Vegas. Vashti is there too. Many of the best track athletes in the state, plus some of whom have traveled from as far away as Atlanta, Texas and Hawaii, gruel it out. Randall has been running and coaching the Gazelles for nearly eight years. He funds the club by himself.
"We take the worst conditions and we perform in them," Randall said. "We train in the middle of the heat for the advantage we get. So if it's 75 degrees at the meet, our runners will run faster in the 400, the 800, because they're used to being beat down by 115-degree heat. Humidity helps us. Because we're use to [breathing heavy in dry air]. "
"Hey, can we stop talking and work, please?" he says. "Yeah, work."
Randall is talking with me and coaching his athletes at the same time. The training exercises are exhausting, made even more intolerable by the heat. Randall closes the garage door, to the protests of Vashti and others. With nothing more than one floor fan circulating room-temperature air inside the stuffy garage, the team endures multiple reps of finger pushups, one-armed pushups, clap pushups, box jumps, rope-resistance exercises and more. Cunningham's training regimen for his team and Vashti is a culmination of football, track and what he's learned through Russian and East German training. He likes "old equipment" and simple-style training. Things have proven to work through the decades to build "raw, simple muscle."
"I don't know who's going to train them with more expertise in sports and training than their Pop," Randall said. "I've been there before. I know what success tastes like. I know what defeat tastes like. I figure if I can take that experience and teach it to my kids, that's very important."
Cunningham, 53, is conducting an interview but watching the athletes in his cramped weight room and critiquing them at the same time. He's also answering my questions while doing crunches below me.
Vashti is part of a three-woman team in Rio, joining fellow first-time Olympian Inika McPherson and 32-year-old Chaunté Lowe, the American record holder in high jump who has four Olympic appearances to her name. She is who Cunningham is chasing both at these Games and on a broader, career-spanning scale.
Vashti is the physical ideal of an elite high jumper. Her body is a beanpole. She seems to be 85 percent legs and arms, which makes her perfect for the sport she's chosen. She doesn't pop off the ground; she boosts. Vashti can contort and warp with simple grace. She weighs 122 pounds, stands 6-foot-1 and is still growing. Her waist is slimmer than the calves of some NFL players. High jumping is an unnatural motion, but she makes it look intuitive.
"Yes, it taunts you," Vashti said of her eternal enemy, the bar. "It's something so gentle, something you have to be so careful around, yet you have to attack it at the same time. You know the power that the bar stands for, but you're going to overcome it. The high jump isn't natural. You have to trust your body."
She's such a natural that, though she's not competing in long jump, she's able to clear 19 feet without training. That event is something Randall says they'll consider for down the road. Only twice in the past two years has Vashti failed to win a meet. She's has been jumping over bars since she was 8, when her dad brought her to the local high school track just to see how she'd do. She was immediately predisposed to the discipline.
"She was good, natural at it, as soon as she was out there," Randall said.
After practicing and building up training over the next five years, Vashti was clearing 6 feet by the time she was a freshman (which is outrageously advanced). Her older brother, Randall Cunningham Jr., was the first to follow in father's footsteps. The Cunningham offspring are pulling from a supreme gene pond. Randall's wife, Felicity DeJager Cunningham, was a stunning ballet dancer in Harlem for years, and their union has created an NCAA high jump champion in Randall Cunningham Jr., plus Grace Cunningham, who is 13 years old and already taller than 6 feet. She's in training, too.
Cunningham Jr., who attends USC, took gold in high jump at the 2015 Pan American championships in Edmonton. He came up short of Olympic qualifying in June, just a few weeks after winning the NCAA title in high jump.
"It's flesh and blood, but it's genetics and to train them and for them to get it? For them to train, compete and understand how to catapult through success in a critical moment? They take a piece of us and use it," Randall said.
This is partly why some in the track and field world believe Vashti will eventually jump higher than any woman ever. There's another six inches to gain in the next decade. Javier Sotomayor of Cuba broke the men's barrier in 1993 when he cleared 8 feet. Cunningham can be that for the women. Bulgaria's Stefka Kostadinova has owned the record for almost two decades; she cleared 2.09 meters (6 feet, 10.25 inches) in 1987 in Rome. Chaunté Lowe's jump of 6 feet, 8.75 inches in 2010 marks the American record.
High jump has been an Olympic event for women since 1928. Clearing the seven-foot mark has become for women what the four-minute mile was for so long in running. Vashti believes she can be Roger Bannister of her sport. The question is, how good will she be in Rio? Medaling is on the table, but it is no guarantee. This could be a wake-up moment, a harsh start. Or the beginning of an incredible legacy. She has never faced this kind of buildup or competition. And that's the hook to high jump. It's a one-person sport involving five opponents competing at once: mind vs. body vs. bar vs. other competitors vs. the elements.
"Most of it is mental training," Randall said. "Mental training is about the inner being, in my opinion, and she trusts God. A lot of athletes are strong Christians, because when you exhaust yourself with believing in yourself, you have to believe in the Truth. You can't rub a rabbit's foot. The rabbit's foot is not going to do anything for you. But when you pull on the true and living God, there's power in that."
She'll compete on Aug. 18, and if she clears preliminary competition, will attempt to medal the day before the Olympics end, on Aug. 20.
"I want to win every little competition that I'm in, no matter what it is," she said. "I don't think about what it's like to lose, only what it's like to win. And if I don't win (in Rio)? I mean, I made it this far. It wasn't for nothing."
Vashti's highest jump outdoors in 2016: 1.94 meters. That's good for 10th best in the world but third best for any American woman this year. For perspective, at the 2012 London Games, the three medal winners leaped 2.05, 2.03 and 2.03 meters. So far this year, the best jump by any woman in any competition from outside the U.S.: 1.99 meters.
That's what Vashti cleared -- with room to spare -- in March. But that was indoors. Next week will come in the elements, outside, with the entire world watching and waiting to see if high jump's supposedly transcendent star is ready to soar.
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