US high jumper Vashti Cunningham (© Kirby Lee)
For Vashti Cunningham, sporting greatness is in the genes.
With just one month to go until the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015, the 17-year-old US high jumper is an overwhelming favourite for gold, having cleared 1.94m already this year, which puts her four centimetres clear of her closest competitor outdoors.
With a performance so strong, at an age so young, there’s little doubt that the Las Vegas teenager came up trumps in the genetic lottery, which is perhaps no surprise given the background of her parents.
Cunningham’s Dad, Randall, was an American football star in the 1980s and 1990s. During a 16-year career, the 6ft 4in (1.93m) quarterback played for the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Ravens. Cunningham’s mother, Felicity, is a 5ft 11in (1.80m) former professional ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
With parents like that, it’s no surprise that their 6ft ¾in (1.85m) pencil-thin daughter appears to have inherited much of their athletic ability, something that was made clear when Cunningham sailed over 1.94m at the Mt SAC Relays in April.
Not only did she equal the US junior record with that mark, but she also smashed the US youth record, moving to equal fourth on the world youth all-time list, just two centimetres shy of the world youth best.
“I had set that as a goal, but I don’t know if I truly believed it until it happened,” she says. “Now I believe I can keep going higher. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
But just how high can she go this summer?
“I want to jump 6ft 6in (1.98m),” she says. “It’ll take a lot of determination and hard work, but I believe I can clear that.”
Cunningham is coached by her dad, who was also a high jumper in high school before deciding to focus on American football. Her older brother, Randall, is also an accomplished high jumper – the 6ft 6in (1.98m) 19-year-old is currently third on the world junior list this year after clearing 2.24m in April. “I learn a lot from his jumping,” says Cunningham. “I like to look at him as an inspirational example.”
For Cunningham, the route to high jump stardom came via other sports. “When I was little I used to play soccer and in middle school play some basketball,” she explains. “I still play volleyball too.”
These days, though, volleyball is starting to take a back seat, but it’s still a sport Cunningham likes to stay involved with, providing as it does the antidote to the occasionally stressful, individual pursuit of high jumping. If it came down to it, though, there’s little doubt which she would favour.
“I would choose track all the way,” she says, “but I like volleyball as it relieves some stress. It’s a fun sport for me.”
The sportsperson Cunningham looks up to most is unsurprisingly an athlete, and one she feels she has a connection with due to their similar physiques. “I really like Allyson Felix,” she says. “I’m a really skinny girl and she was in high school too, so I feel what she felt when everyone called her chicken legs and she really overcame all that.”
Away from the track, Cunningham has a keen interest in photography, and may even choose to study that when she goes to college next year.
Cunningham trains five days a week – three days in the gym, two at the track – and is currently fitting her workouts around classes at summer school.
“I can combine my studies with training,” she says. “I think sport comes first because I’m better at that than I am at school, but I know I’m going to have to keep up with my schoolwork.”
When Cunningham goes to competitions, she has a set routine she likes to repeat before taking to the track.
“I’m usually with my club team,” she says, “but before the event I’ll always go into the back field by myself, have my music all the way up, and warm up. Then I’ll go into the main field, do my stretching, get ready, and I’m always alone for that too so there are no distractions.”
Having a dad and coach who has performed at the highest level, Cunningham has the perfect person to turn to for advice on staying calm in pressure situations. “I like my dad being my coach,” she says. “He keeps me aware of what I need to be focused on. He’ll have me trying higher heights in training so I’m mentally getting used to jump that high.”
If her progression continues, it won’t be long before Cunningham gets the chance to fulfil a goal she has long harboured – to compete for her country at an Olympic Games. It is that, she says, more than anything, which keeps her hungry.
“I really want to make it on the Olympic team and jump in Rio,” she says. “That’s my main goal.”
With genes like Cunningham’s, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF