Vashti Cunningham places second in high jump, earns Olympic berth

Vashti Cunningham clears the bar during the women’s high jump final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Sunday, July 3, 2016, in Eugene Ore.
Vashti Cunningham clears the bar during the women’s high jump final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Sunday, July 3, 2016, in Eugene Ore. The Associated Press

The proud father had no problem with the color of the oversized medal hanging around his daughter’s neck.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful medal,” said former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham. “She doesn’t have one like that.”

Vashti Cunningham’s medal collection is almost exclusively gold, so the silver she collected by finishing second in Sunday’s high jump final at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials will look out of place in her Las Vegas bedroom. Given the great expectations placed on the 18-year-old’s shoulders by her taskmaster father and awestruck public, the kid did everyone proud.

“I always try to win, but I’m very appreciative,” Vashti said. “To be able to go to the Olympics, I’m more happy than disappointed.”

Cunningham cleared the second-highest height of her career, jumping 6 feet, 5 1/2 inches to place second behind Chaunté Lowe (6-7) and advance to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Cunningham will be the youngest woman to represent the United States in Olympic track and field in 40 years.

“She’s breaking barriers,” Lowe said of her young rival. “I think she’s the Usain Bolt of the high jump.”

Sitting directly to Lowe’s left at the post-event news conference, Cunningham’s expression barely changed when she heard Saturday’s winner issue track and field’s highest form of praise. Greatness has been expected long before she jumped 5-9 1/4 as a 14-year-old.

When the 6-foot-1 prodigy cleared a world junior best of 6-6 in winning the 2016 U.S. indoor title, the bar was raised even higher. The day after winning the world senior indoor title in Portland, Ore., in March, Cunningham signed a six-figure professional contract with Nike. She attended her high school prom a few weeks later. A four-page Sports Illustrated profile followed.

“God blessed that little girl, that tall little girl,” Randall Cunningham said Sunday afternoon. “God gave her great genetics.”

Randall Cunningham had a 16-year career as an NFL quarterback, earning Pro Bowl honors four times. His wife, Felicity, was a ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Vashti’s older brother, Randall Jr., won the NCAA high jump last month in Eugene and could join Vashti on the Olympic team next weekend.

Vashti had been having a quiet outdoor season following her world indoor championship, but she was in the groove early Saturday. She cleared her first four heights up to 6-4 on her first attempt, giving her the lead over Lowe and Inika McPherson. The 6-4 clearance assured Cunningham of a top-three finish and an Olympic berth, and she seemed to lose some of her preternatural focus when she missed her first two attempts at 6-4 3/4 and Lowe moved into the lead.

But on her third try at 6-4 3/4, Cunningham sailed over to clinch the silver medal. She then cleared 6-5 1/2 on her first try before missing three times at 6-6 1/4.

Lowe, a 32-year-old mother of two who holds the U.S. record of 6-8, wound up clearing 6-7, the best mark in the world this year. Lowe qualified for her fourth Olympic team.

“We may be able to sweep all the medals in Rio,” said Lowe, who gave Cunningham a long hug at the conclusion of the competition.

“She said she was very proud of me,” Cunningham said.

That made at least two, and likely many more. Clearly some of the publicity surrounding Cunningham stems from her famous father, who cleared 6-8 while attending high school in Santa Barbara before becoming one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in NFL history.

Randall coaches Vashti and Randall Jr., who attends USC. The fact that an ex-football player is coaching one of the world’s best high jumpers normally would raise eyebrows in the cloistered world of track and field, but whatever Dad is doing, it’s obviously working.

Last year, Vashti bypassed a chance to compete in the world outdoor championships. Randall thought it would be best to have her compete against jumpers her own age at the Pan American Junior Championships.

At the same time, when Vashti spoke of wanting to compete for a college team and study photography, Randall recommended that she cash in. He went online and did some research. The average salary for a photographer coming out of college was $45,000.

“Vashti, you can make $45,000 in eight days as a high jumper,” he said.

Asked how an 18-year-old can consistently maintain the composure she’s shown, Randall said, “A lot of whippings.”

Felicity Cunningham looked up from her cell phone and said, “Don’t print that. He’s just kidding.”

Vashti cracked a rare smile when asked what sort of workouts her father would cook up following Sunday’s rare defeat.

“Whatever it is, it’s going to be tough,” she said. “But I can’t think of any coach I’d leave him for.”