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Vashti Cunningham Is Raising the Bar

As a father, a coach, and a pastor, former NFL star Randall Cunningham has taught his high-jumping daughter everything he knows. Now, as she readies for her second Olympics, she’s jumping into her own.

Jarett Sitter

“I hate lunges!” admits U.S. Olympic high jumper Vashti Cunningham, who is about to get off the phone and go do a whole bunch of them under the supervision of her coach, pastor, and father, the former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham. “I have them today, and I’m just not excited,” she says. As if to commiserate, her German shepherd, Mango, chimes in with a forlorn howl. Vashti’s aversion is extremely relatable—even if her reason for doing all those lunges (and those deadlifts, and those hill sprints, and those step-ups, depending on what day of the week it is at the training facility Randall built near the Cunninghams’ Las Vegas home base) is extremely not. When we speak, there are three weeks left until the women’s high jump at the Tokyo Olympics, where Vashti, 23, will be not only a competitor, but a major medal contender in the event, which begins Wednesday evening with qualifying rounds and holds its final on Saturday.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and all of the energy that the 6-foot-1 Vashti puts into her weight training, however much she dislikes aspects of it, is kind of like coiling a spring. Compared with her competitors, Vashti does a lot more lifting in her training process than she does actual high-jumping; Randall believes too much of the latter to be too taxing on the body over time. But when her body is called upon to generate its own lift, it is ready. “I kind of rely on speed and power,” she says, “and not really technical form over the bar.”

When Vashti competes, she leans back on one heel and then bounds toward the high jump bar, running in the shape of a J, the combination of the bouncy track material and her long, lunge-primed legs putting an ethereal and determined skip in each step. When she takes flight, she looks kind of like Neo bending impossibly backward in The Matrix, wrapping her body just barely up and over the shaky bar and staring up at the sky. When she lands, she doesn’t sink into the thick mat but rather somersaults along it, a study in perpetual motion.

She moves like her mother, Felicity De Jager, a former ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and she is coached by her father, Randall, who before a 16-season NFL career used to do the high jump in high school in Santa Barbara, where he once cleared 6 feet, 10 inches. He tells me that in his day, the landing mats were filled with nothing but air and thus required real precision or else. “You land on the edge?” he says. “You’re hitting ground.” It’s not hard to imagine him telling this story to his daughter for the umpteenth time while she’s in the middle of another lunge, busy preparing to hit the ground running so that she can fly.

No female American high jumper has won Olympic gold since 1988, when Louise Ritter upset Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova (who still holds the sport’s world record today) with a jump of 2.03 meters, or 6-foot-8. Since then, two U.S. women have medaled: Chaunte Lowe won bronze in Beijing in 2008, and Brigetta Barrett earned silver in London in 2012. But for the past half decade, ever since she was a teenager, Vashti Cunningham has represented USA high jumping’s top hope.

Fiercely competitive and quietly contemplative, athletic and artistic, Vashti is an anime-loving thrift-store enthusiast who can also jump higher than her own tall self and can lift three times her body weight. As a kid, she excelled in flag football and enjoyed hurling her body off the roof of her house and onto a trampoline. Despite her height, she tells me she doesn’t remember ever having knee-throbbing growing pains, the way her older brother, Randall II, did. “It was just kind of a gradual thing,” she says—gradual yet relentless, kind of like her rise through the high jump world. Now an adult, she competes in international track and field meets with tiny rhinestones sparkling beneath her eyes and dabbles in design—“I do make some of my own clothes,” she says—and photography. She has modeled Virgil Abloh’s Off-White collection in Paris and been on the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. In a Sports Illustrated profile of her, no less of an authority than Lowe said: “I think of her as a young Usain Bolt. Everyone knew Bolt was going to be a superstar before he realized it.”

Vashti was in fourth grade the first time Randall took her to a real track, the kind that feels springy underfoot, and she still remembers how it felt to hop buoyantly up and down. Throughout middle school she competed across various jumping and running events, but it was in high school that her best one became clear. In her sophomore year at Bishop Gorman High, Vashti jumped 6 feet, 3 inches, a height that had been surpassed by only two other U.S. high schoolers in history. “I said, all right, you’re like one of the best jumpers in the world and you’re only 15 years old,” Randall remembers. “Now this is some Olympic stuff.”

Vashti describes herself as shy, but her career speaks for itself loudly. She won gold and silver at the World Indoor Championships in 2016 and 2018, and a bronze at the Outdoor Worlds a year later (plus a 13th-place finish at the Rio Olympics when she was a teenager). She turned down college offers to turn pro after high school, signing with Nike; she is now also a Red Bull athlete and has a highlight on her Instagram devoted to the skateboard company Sector 9. Her personal best has ratcheted up and up from 1.94 meters (a national high school record at the time) to 2.02, a mark equating to about 6 feet, 7 inches, that Vashti set at the Chula Vista Field Fest just this past May with what looked like inches to spare.

“That definitely felt like the work is paying off, and the process,” Vashti says of that jump. “We’re on the right path. That was just a really, really crucial moment for my confidence in this season.” At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June another high jumper, Amina Smith, did the “we are not worthy” gesture toward Vashti when her name was announced. Vashti won the event on Father’s Day; Randall was there to see it, and to remind her to focus on little tweaks like keeping her head back. And unlike most athletes’ family members, who were restricted from attending the Summer Games due to the pandemic, he will be on site to coach her when the high jump begins this week in Tokyo.

While Vashti grew up well aware that she was, as she put it to NBC Sports, “Randall Cunningham’s daughter,” she doesn’t really have too many memories of Randall’s actual career. She was born in 1998, after he had already left the Philadelphia Eagles following 11 seasons at quarterback. (Having met a lot of enthusiastic Iggles fans over the years, though, she does have a soft spot for them for life.) She was a baby the year her dad and Randy Moss led the Minnesota Vikings to an improbable 15-1 record. She sort of remembers seeing him play for the Ravens, his last NFL gasp.

But she loved playing flag football herself, and based on her style of play, the familial connection was apparent. “That was a very fun time for me, one of the favorite times of my life,” Vashti says. “I really just remember everything from, like, my attitude on the field, to being the only girl on the team, to being the quarterback.” She pauses. “But I think I played running back as well.”

Randall, who played quarterback and also punted in college, clarifies proudly: “She was a quarterback, who caught the ball, and would run around the corner for a touchdown.” It sounds familiar: As an NFL quarterback, Randall was known for his inventiveness and mobility. (And his penchant for creating, and then wriggling his way out of, jams: Cunningham at one point released a candy bar called the “Randall Bar” that boasted, on the front, “‘SCRAMBLED’ Peanuts & Caramel, Smothered in Milk Chocolate.”) He was also known for voicing his thoughts: His Eagles coach, Buddy Ryan, called him “the Boss.”

After retiring from the NFL in 2001, Randall launched a gospel recording studio and, later, his own church, Remnant Ministries in Las Vegas, which he and his wife continue to run to this day. Randall is also entering his second season as the team chaplain for the Las Vegas Raiders. And when he isn’t attending to matters of the soul, he has spent a lot of his post-retirement life scratching his old competitive itch by coaching his children, including Randall II, who played football and was a top talent in the high jump, and Vashti, whose own track and field career took off once she aged out of flag football.

When we speak in July, Randall is sitting at his desk in Las Vegas, with papers and passports spread out before him, figuring out what he needs to do to get into Japan in a few weeks and fretting over how to figure out the best way to optimize Vashti’s sleep patterns and circadian rhythms in the ensuing days and weeks. As a coach, Randall is methodical and opinionated, well read and exacting, eager to make the most out of his athletes’ God-given blessings and yet also a self-described “unorthodox”—not unlike the way he was as a quarterback studying film of the opposition.

In addition to focusing almost exclusively on weight training rather than leaping, he limits the number of meets that Vashti enters to limit the bodily wear and tear of all that jumping and arching and landing. (In 2019, Track & Field News pointed out that Vashti had entered nine meets in a season as compared to her top competition, Russia’s Mariya Lasitskene, who had shown up for 26.) He’s not opposed to a good old-fashioned parental bribe: In high school, to incentivize Vashti to set a new record, he promised her a car. (When she hit the mark he bought her a Mercedes, though it was used.)

Over the years he has had Vashti watch recordings of successful high jumpers like Anna Chicherova and (recent co-gold-medalist!) Mutaz Essa Barshim, and he has kept a watchful eye on the competition himself, especially from the sport’s most historically successful region. “When you see the athletes on the Eastern Bloc,” he observes of the sport’s most successful region, “they’re not doing a lot of smiling and things. They don’t take anything for granted and there’s nothing phony. Everything is real and authentic and it’s serious.” He also likes to watch the coaches. “I watch them with their stopwatches,” he says. “It’s pretty amazing to study them.”

He also keeps up with the next generation of talent on the home front. “I got a 9-year-old coming up, and she jumped for the first time the other day,” Randall says of one of his younger daughters, Sofia. “And I was like—I was blown away. It was like, hold on a second.” Luckily, he says, his coaching services will remain in demand for a little bit longer. “Oh, her technique was horrific,” he says, and he sounds like he couldn’t be happier.

Earlier this summer, sitting next to her dad during an interview with Lesley Visser, Vashti pointed out that relying on the same person for spiritual guidance, fatherly support, and coaching strategy is a challenging trinity, one fraught with inherent tensions. “We have come to some moments where I had to tell my dad, ‘Well, OK, I’m with you for practice for about two hours in the day,” she said then, as Randall nodded beside her. “And then when you come home after work and you want to talk about track, I’m just like, ‘OK, sometimes I need to talk to my dad.’”

Vashti says that Randall has gotten better at leaving the training talk at the training facility, but that it’s taken some time. (The USA national team has a coaching staff of its own, but the majority of her training is with her father.) “It was not like one specific sit-down-and-talk would change it,” she says. “So it was something that we had to just grow in, and give it time and maturity and growth.” Randall agrees that “it’s kind of a back-and-forth that we went through,” and calls managing his own roles “a fine line” and “a learning curve.” And when he thinks about it through the perspective of the former athlete that he is, he knows there’s only so far a coach can actually go anyway, no matter how omnipresent they may be. “It’s an individual sport,” he says. “It’s you out there at that high jump. No one else is going to lift you above the bar. All your training and God-given ability has to be, you know, what gets the job done.”

As a teenager, Vashti had grown accustomed to outdoing herself on the regular, constantly setting new PRs. As she remembers it, it wasn’t really until her senior year of high school that she competed in an event against athletes capable of beating her. “I was jumping against Chaunte Lowe and a bunch of other professionals,” she recalls. Vashti didn’t just hold her own at that meet, she won it outright, and eight days later won the world indoor title too. In recent years, her rate of personal progression had started to ever-so-slightly slow. She is still setting new personal bests, just not as steadily, and she was still medaling at Worlds, but earning bronze rather than gold. The uncertainties surrounding the possible postponement of the Tokyo Games in the spring of 2020 made it difficult to stay focused while, say, doing all those lunges. Then this February, she set a new personal best for an indoor meet in Arkansas, and this May, not only did she one-up her outdoor record, she did so by speaking up.

In a conversation with E! last month, Vashti said that one of the biggest differences between her mindset now and five years ago is that previously, “I would have to go to my dad and ask him what’s wrong” with a jump. “Now I’m telling him, ‘OK, this is what I think,’” she said. That’s what she did at the Chula Vista Field Fest, telling her father that she felt like she had gotten too fast, that she needed to adjust the location of her starting mark to compensate for her own ever-increasing strength. “That day, she drove me nuts,” Randall laughs, but she was right. The adjustment made, she sailed over the bar at 2.02 meters. Randall is convinced that she had enough extra clearance that she was in new record territory, even if it wasn’t official. Having room to spare was “comforting,” Vashti says. “That means that I have more in me, and I can jump higher than that.”

For Vashti, who has been coming into her own on her own terms lately, the Tokyo Games represent new opportunity. She loves that other athletes across her sport treat her like the veteran she is instead of the youngster she once was, even if she says she’s still a little too reticent to properly thank them. “I notice all the time, like when I get to higher heights and I’m the only competition, I notice that they stay and watch and they’re cheering for me,” she says. “And they don’t really know that it speaks to me in a different way than I show.”

But other aspects of the Tokyo Games are also a little bittersweet, a bit of a tease. For years she had been stoked to experience such a vibrant city that appeals to so many of her interests, from anime to avant-garde fashion. “She just wants a sword, a samurai sword,” chuckles Randall, who has been to Japan three times. “She just wants a real one.” But pandemic restrictions meant that Vashti couldn’t arrive in Japan until less than a week before her event. Had this been a normal Olympics, Vashti says, maybe she would have expanded her network when she wasn’t competing, even found herself on some cool underground tour of Tokyo: “I was really excited to just find some friends out there who are into fashion,” she laments, “and just let them take me places.”

One day, there will be plenty of time for her to explore, but for now the focus is on the familiar, and the only company is good old dad, and the only thing left for Vashti to do is steel herself for the competition: for all that lunging, leaping, and bending toward gold.

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