A Gifted High Jumper Gets Set To Leap Onto The World Stage

Jun 30, 2016
Originally published on July 11, 2016 1:59 pm

Editor's Note: Vashti Cunningham made the U.S. Olympic team by finishing second in the high jump at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., on July 3, clearing 6-foot-5 (1.97 meters). Her brother Randall Cunningham Jr. did not make the team.

It's already been a big year for high jumper Vashti Cunningham, and it could soon get even bigger. In March, the high school senior from Las Vegas set a world junior record and decided to forgo college competition and turn pro.

Now she has graduated and has her sights set on the Summer Olympics in Brazil, just over a month away.

Here are a few numbers to keep in mind:

6-foot-1: her height.

6-foot-6 1/4 (1.99 meters): her world junior record, which captured the U.S. indoor championship in March. She won the world indoor title a week later, with a jump of 6-foot-5.

18 years: her age.

When Vashti high jumps, it's "kinda like this long-limbed gazelle jumping over a bar," says her father and coach, the former NFL star quarterback Randall Cunningham, a former high jumper himself.

Vashti is gifted with some pretty spectacular DNA. She can likely chalk up her strength, speed and agility to her father. Her graceful form and flexibility come from her mother, Felicity DeJager Cunningham, a former ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem.

And her brother Randall Cunningham Jr., who is two years older, is also a talented high jumper. As a sophomore at USC, he recently won the NCAA outdoor championship with a leap of 7-foot-4 1/2 (2.25 meters) and is also a candidate to make the Olympic team.

Both parents recall a young Vashti who was constantly in motion. "She would jump from the roof [onto] the trampoline and try to land on the wall," recalls her mother. Vashti was "always running and jumping and flipping and cartwheels and all that," adds her father.

Asked if there's any downside to having her father for a coach, Vashti pauses before answering.

"I used to wonder why I couldn't be going out to parties or why I couldn't be hanging out with my friends late at night, and then it kinda just clicks in my head when he keeps explaining it to me: 'You're not at the same level as some of these kids, and you have to act like a pro now. You have something to do. Now go get your business done,'" she said.

The day after she won the world indoor championship in March, Vashti Cunningham decided to skip college track and field and turn professional, signing a major endorsement deal with Nike. It's a "very lucrative" deal, according to her father, who considers this a golden moment for Vashti.

With prize money, he says, in one year "she could probably make close to a quarter of a million, or $500,000, if she wants to. And then just with endorsements, she could make up to a million bucks. Lord willing, she goes and wins the Olympics, she could easily make $500- to $800,000. She sets a world record, she could become a multimillionaire."

These are all big ifs. She hasn't made the Olympic team yet, though she's a strong favorite. The finals for the women's high jump are set for this Sunday in Eugene, Ore.

Still, the Nike deal came with a bonanza of Nike products: dozens of pairs of shoes, uniforms, practice gear, backpacks, you name it.

"It was like 12 or 16 boxes one day when I came home from school," Vashti remembers with a grin.

The tradeoff of turning pro is that she's can't compete as a college athlete. And for now, with her attention turned to the Olympics, college is on hold.

Vashti says, somewhat ruefully, "I wanted to go to college so bad," with a plan to study photography.

But her father says they researched how much a photographer might make coming out of college: about $45,000 a year.

"I said, Vashti, you can make $45,000 in eight days," Randall recalls.

Vashti adds, "It was kind of just me seeing that the door was open and just going through it full speed."

With the decision to go pro and the Olympics coming up, that adds up to a lot of pressure on an 18-year-old.

Her mother, Felicity, does worry about that. "As a mom that would be my concern," she says, "that she's able to do what is demanded of her and not burn out; that being a professional doesn't take the joy out of her jumping."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're about to meet a young athlete with great expectations riding on her. Her name is Vashti Cunningham.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Cunningham becomes the youngest woman, at 18 years and 63 days, to win a world title in any indoor event.

SIEGEL: That was in March when Cunningham was crowned the world indoor champion in women's high jump. Now she's set her sights on the Olympics, and she's just turned professional, signing a big endorsement deal. NPR's Melissa Block has this profile of a rising star.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Vashti Cunningham has always been in motion and fearless. Take her parents' word for it.

FELICITY CUNNINGHAM: She would jump from the roof on the trampoline and try to land on the wall or...

RANDALL CUNNINGHAM: Just always running and jumping and flipping and cart wheels and all that, even when...

F. CUNNINGHAM: Oh, my gosh, always very, extremely athletic and competitive. She hates losing.

BLOCK: Vashti is gifted with some pretty spectacular DNA. Her graceful form and flexibility, thank her mother for that. Felicity De Jager Cunningham is a former ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. And the rest of Vashti's strength, speed and agility, well, her father is the former star NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As Cunningham is back, he's being trapped. He ducts under three men. He's looking, he's rolling, he's heaving it deep down field for Barnett, who leaps and has it.

BLOCK: Randall Cunningham is also a former high jumper himself. And he's Vashti's coach.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Being her coach and being her father, you know, we have a relationship where it's like, you know, she'll chest bump me or push me or whatever and it's like, it's my daughter, you know (laughter)? It's not like another kid. It's kind of who we are.

BLOCK: You're chest bumping a former NFL quarterback?

VASHTI CUNNINGHAM: Yes, believe it or not, my skinny self. And I almost knock him down.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, that's what she say.

V. CUNNINGHAM: It doesn't happen?

R. CUNNINGHAM: No.

BLOCK: Any downside to having dad for a coach? Vashti pauses to think about that.

V. CUNNINGHAM: I used to wonder why I couldn't be going out to parties or why I couldn't be hanging out with my friends late at night. And then it kind of just clicks in my head when he keeps explaining it to me like, you're not at the same level as some of these kids. And you have to act like a pro now. You have something to do now. Go get your business done.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Here we go, ready?

BLOCK: On the day I visit the Cunninghams at their sprawling home in Las Vegas...

R. CUNNINGHAM: Let's go.

BLOCK: Randall is running Vashti through a training session, along with the track club he coaches. It's 115 degrees outside, a blast furnace of a day.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Pick it up. Pass them, Vashti.

BLOCK: At age 18, Vashti Cunningham is 6 feet 1, Whippet thin at 122 pounds, all legs.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Kind of like this long-limbed gazelle jumping over a bar.

BLOCK: Randall explains the high jump mechanics. Vashti will run to the bar on a J-curve, planting at an angle.

R. CUNNINGHAM: And she's trying to jump over it backwards off of one foot (laughter), arms in the air, knee driven up to where you almost kick your forehead.

BLOCK: Eyes toward the sky, back arched, hips up. Finally, kick your legs over the bar, land on your back in the pit.

R. CUNNINGHAM: (Laughter) It's not a natural thing that you can do. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

BLOCK: That dedication is paying off for Vashti Cunningham, literally. This spring, the day after she won the World's, she turned pro and signed an endorsement deal with Nike, a very lucrative deal, her father says. That means she's given up college eligibility. Before the World Indoor Championships, she says...

V. CUNNINGHAM: I wanted to go to college so bad.

BLOCK: She wanted to study photography. But when she won at the World's, with a $40,000 prize that she couldn't collect as an amateur, that dream changed. Randall Cunningham says for comparison, they researched how much a photographer might make coming out of college, about $45,000 a year.

R. CUNNINGHAM: I said, Vashti, you can make $45,000 in 8 days.

V. CUNNINGHAM: So it was kind of just me seeing that the door was open and just going through it full speed.

BLOCK: So college will wait. This could be her golden moment. Vashti Cunningham grins when she talks about the bonanza of Nike stuff she's gotten as part of her deal - shoes, uniforms, practice gear, backpacks.

V. CUNNINGHAM: It was like 12 or 16 boxes one day when I came home from school.

BLOCK: And Randall Cunningham imagines lots more opportunity if Vashti keeps racking up wins.

R. CUNNINGHAM: Just with endorsements, she can make up to a million bucks over a one-year period. She goes and wins the - Lord willing, she goes and wins the Olympics, she could easily make 500 to 800,000. She set a world record, she could become a multimillionaire.

BLOCK: All at age 18, which leaves mom Felicity worrying about the pressure on her young daughter.

F. CUNNINGHAM: As a mom, that would be my concern that she's able to do what is demanded of her and not burn out, that she has joy in what she is doing, that being a professional doesn't take the joy out of her jumping.

BLOCK: Right now, Vashti Cunningham is considered a favorite to qualify for the Olympics in the track and field trials later this week. Her older brother, Randall Cunningham Jr., will be competing there, too. Both are high jumpers aiming high for the 2016 Olympics. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.