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

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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.