High jumping a family affair for the Cunninghams

Vashti Cunningham won the gold medal at the IAAF World Indoor Championships at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland last March. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

EUGENE, Ore. – As parents, Randall and Felicity Cunningham did not so much have children as they did bouncing bundles of fast-twitch fibers and spring-loaded muscles. It could hardly have been otherwise.

For 16 years Randall Cunningham was the most athletic NFL quarterback of his era, at times resembling a 6-foot-4 version of the comic book superhero “Plastic Man” for the positions he could put his body in to frustrate defenders. When he met his future wife, Felicity De Jager was a professional ballet dancer.

Together, they gifted their children, Randall II, Vashti and Grace, with an impressive set of genes that are being put to good use in the high jump.

“I think both of those skills help me out a lot,’’ Vashti Cunningham said when asked about the strength and grace required of a ballet dancer such as her mother. “My mom is very graceful and she helps me out a lot.’’

As for her quarterback dad, she said, “I’ve seen a lot of his videos and how he jumped over people.’’

Vashti, 18, is the new star of the family for her rapid ascent as a high jumper. So promising is she that she turned pro as a high school senior after winning the IAAF World Indoor championship in Portland this past March with a clearance of 6 feet, 5 inches (1.96m), a week after raising the U.S. Junior record to 6-6 ¼ (1.99m) at the USATF Indoor Championships. She’s not far off the World Junior mark of 6-7 (2.01m), which happens to be her goal for 2016.

Eighteen-year-old Vashti Cunningham turned pro after winning the gold medal in the high jump at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland this past March. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

Eighteen-year-old Vashti Cunningham turned pro after winning the gold medal in the high jump at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland this past March. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

‘’It really is a learning experience for me because I am so young. I’m really enjoying the experience so far,’’ she said.

Vashti, who finished fifth in the Prefontaine Classic at 6-3 ½ (1.92m), will return to Hayward Field for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field, July 1-10, with a good chance of making the U.S. team for the Rio Olympics.

Before that, however, she attended the NCAA Championships at Hayward Field earlier this month, not as a competitor, but a cheerleader for her brother, Randall II, a sophomore high jumper at USC who won the NCAA high jump title with an outdoor personal best of 7-4 ½ (2.25m). His indoor best is 7-5 (2.26m).


Randall Cunningham II won the 2016 NCAA Championship in the high jump. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

Randall II certainly looks the part of a high jumper at 6-6, two inches taller than his dad, who cleared 6-10 as a high school athlete in Santa Barbara. And then there’s Grace, a 13-year-old seventh grader who is as tall as Vashti at 5-11 with the look of another high-jumping Cunningham.

“You’ll be seeing her,’’ Randall said.

Right now, it’s Vashti that people want to see. What they are seeing is a composed young woman not at all intimidated by competing against seasoned professional women, some of whom are nearly twice her age.

“She’s good with all this,’’ Randall Cunningham said of his daughter. “She handles the pressure. It’s a lot of fun watching all this. She’s a lot like me. She wants to be on a stage like this. She’s strong and determined to do great.’’

At the Pre Classic, Vashti finished one place above Spain’s Ruth Beitia, who at 37 is more than twice as old as her. The winner of the event at 6-4 ¾ (1.95m), 32-year-old Chaunte Lowe, has served as something of a mentor to Vashti in her first few months as a pro. Vashti figures to one day challenge and perhaps surpass Lowe’s American record of 6-8 ¾ or even the longstanding world record of 6-10 ¼ by Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova from 1987.

“I’m very comfortable with where I am now and who I’m going against,’’ she said. “In Vegas (in high school) I’d be jumping against myself. I’m grateful to be in a competition where people are jumping the same as me.’’

In describing her U.S. Junior record of 6-6 ¼, Vashti said, “It really feels like you’re floating for a few seconds and all of a sudden you’re on the pad and you look up and go, ‘Oh, the bar is still up.’ ‘’

At Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, Vashti jumped 6-5 last year as a junior and ended up with the leading mark among all U.S. women for 2015. She attended her senior prom and recently graduated.

The highlight of her year so far?

“The World Indoor,’’ she said of her triumphant night in Portland. “Prom was fun but there’s no feeling like winning a world title. I decided I really wanted to go pro after World Indoor. It seemed to make sense to go pro.’’

Before making that decision, Vashti had been considering USC, Oregon and Georgia as her college destination. However, for such an elite athlete, bypassing college was the right call, especially in an Olympic year. As an example, it worked out well for Allyson Felix, who won an Olympic silver medal at 200 meters at Athens in 2004 when she was 18.

“The high jump should be great,’’ said TrackTown USA President Vin Lananna, looking ahead to the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“What will be the big highlight moment of 2016? Maybe it’s the high jump. Who knows? Anytime we can have something newsworthy, positive and dynamic, it’s great for the sport. She’s (Vashti) pretty impressive. She represents all the good things the sport has. Hopefully, it will be a long career and something we can put our arms around.’’

Looking ahead to August, Vashti could challenge for a medal at the Rio Olympics.

“I believe it is a reality for me to be in the Olympics this summer,’’ she said. “I have the potential to win. I have been working hard. I think I could win Olympic gold. It takes a lot of focus for me to keep training hard and having a lot of confidence in myself.’’

In some respects, Vashti is like any other teen-ager working her first job in that, “I can buy myself things I really want instead of asking my parents to buy them.’’

As a pro, Vashti’s contract with Nike likely includes bonuses for making U.S. national teams, setting records and earning medals in international competitions. It’s pretty heady stuff for an 18-year-old, but as her dad said, she’s good with all this.

Vashti Cunningham placed second at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field this year. She'll be back in TrackTown USA with Olympic aspirations at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, July 1-10, at Hayward Field. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

Vashti Cunningham placed fifth at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field this year. She’ll be back in TrackTown USA with Olympic aspirations at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, July 1-10. (TrackTown photo by Josh Phillips)

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