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Vashti Cunningham ready to prove herself, on and off the track

Vashti Cunningham competes in the women’s high jump during the Mt SAC Relays Elite Division & USATF Golden Games in April. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

When you watch Vashti Cunningham spring from the ground to float cleanly over a high jump bar, you understand why she’s one of the best in the world.

Since turning professional at 18 years old, the Las Vegas native has continued to prove her athletic prowess, from dominating the American high jump scene to launching onto the global stage. Now 24, Cunningham is reaching new heights, including beyond the bar.

“I definitely think everything that I’ve been doing has, in some way, changed over time,” Cunningham told Just Women’s Sports.

“Whether it’s me running — literally my physical approach in high jump — or my mental approach, my spiritual approach, I think everything has matured a little bit more.”

It’s been six years since Cunningham became the youngest woman to win a World Indoor Championships title in any event. Then she signed with Nike, graduated from high school in Nevada and debuted at the Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. She punched her ticket with a jump of 1.97m to finish second overall at the U.S. Trials. Once in Brazil, Cunningham advanced to the final round, where she placed 13th overall as the second youngest athlete on Team USA.

The accomplishments didn’t stop there. With a total of 10 national titles, Cunningham is fourth on the All-Time American performance list with a personal high-jump record of 2.02m/6-7.5. In 2019, she secured a bronze medal at the World Championships in Doha, and in 2021 she placed sixth at the Tokyo Olympics.

Early on, Cunningham participated in many sports from flag football to basketball and volleyball. She also tried out a variety of track and field events, like the 400 meters and long jump. It didn’t take long for her to find her knack as a high jumper.

“I think I realized high jump was my thing when my dad was coaching high jump, and I was still practicing high jump every single time,” she explained with a laugh. “I was like, OK, so this is the one that I’m going to do.”

Cunningham’s father, Randall Cunningham, who played 16 seasons in the NFL and mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles, is still her coach. Her mother, Felicity de Jager, is a former professional ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Raised by two extraordinary athletes, Cunningham and her siblings learned the value of hard work and camaraderie from a young age.

“I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is the support that comes with having a family like that. It’s never-ending, and it’s always genuine,” Cunningham said.

“That’s been one of my biggest and my strongest assets for when I perform, and which keeps me training.”

Cunningham knows that when it’s lonely at the top, support from those around you can make all the difference.

After suffering from a bone spur in her ankle in 2019, an injury that would eventually require surgery, it was Cunningham’s father who altered her training to involve less jumping. The change ultimately kept Cunningham from going over the bar as often, even before some competitions, and it has been a testament to the strength and trust of their relationship.

“It was helpful in the long run for preserving my body at the time,” Cunningham said. “I understood why I wasn’t going to be high-jump practicing.”

Cunningham placed sixth at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, improving on her 13-place finish in Rio in 2016. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Unable to physically practice her jumps, visualization became paramount to her success. Like her father, Cunningham has made a habit of watching her previous high jump competitions to remind her of the techniques she’s used for specific heights.

“If you’re somebody going through what I was going through when I’m not able to jump a lot, I think that the visual side of it is also giving your brain like a certain extent of muscle memory,” she said.

The other role model Cunningham named was the late Kobe Bryant. “I looked up to Kobe Bryant a lot, especially when I was playing basketball, I really loved basketball so much. And I love the Lakers, so that just automatically made me love Kobe,” she said.

Although Cunningham didn’t continue her basketball career in high school, she did play volleyball before choosing to focus solely on high jump. If Cunningham hadn’t turned professional right out of high school, many of the top track and field universities that were recruiting her at the time would have granted her the opportunity to continue her volleyball career at the collegiate level.

“If I do ever go back and play volleyball, I know I’m going to get there,” she said of possibly returning to the indoor court or giving beach volleyball a try one day.

Beyond her athletic dreams, Cunningham has aspirations in photography and fashion. Her Instagram feed is colorfully sprinkled with editorial fashion and lifestyle shots, in between photos of her high jumping.

She became interested in photography around the seventh grade when she was able to take an elective class. Since moving into her own place, she’s been able to experiment more and more with her passions off the track.

“Every time that I would look at the pictures that we were turning in or just looking through my pictures and taking pictures, I just enjoyed the way that I would capture it,” Cunningham said.

“I fell in love with my perspective of things and being able to show what I see things as.”

Similarly, Cunningham’s interest in fashion was born out of curiosity. When she began visiting the local Goodwill in Las Vegas, she would purchase clothes that she could repurpose to fit her style.

“I really grew my love for fashion and wanting to stand out and represent myself — rather than looking like everybody,” she said.

Her high school, Bishop Gorman, also required uniforms. When students were allowed to dress freely on certain days, Cunningham says she was even more motivated to embrace expression through fashion.

These days, Cunningham has been involved in countless photoshoots and fashion shows, even walking at Paris Fashion Week for Virgil Abloh’s Off-White spring and summer 2019 runway collection.

“Anything that I’ve been involved with, I take so much from and I try to apply it in the direction that I’m trying to go, without changing who I am or what I believe in,” she said.

This July, Cunningham, 24, will have another opportunity to reimagine greatness. The World Athletics Championships are coming to Eugene, Ore., marking the first time in history that the championships will be held on U.S. soil at historic Hayward Field.

Cunningham, currently sixth in the Women’s High Jump World Rankings, was able to preview the World Championships venue during the 2022 Prefontaine Classic at the end of May.

“I’m really excited for World Championships being in America. That’s one thing that is giving me something to look forward to,” she said. “The fact that we don’t have to travel so far and adjust to everything, and we get to just be where we’re comfortable.”

The women’s high-jump qualification round will begin on the second day of the meet on Saturday, July 16. The final will be held three days later on Tuesday, July 19. Cunningham’s goal is to finish in the top three.

“I do think Tokyo has just given me a lot of good energy going back into the season and wanting to prove myself through my jumping,” she said. “Not to other people, but just to myself.”

Brenley Goertzen is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @BrenleyGoertzen.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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