Vashti Cunningham isn’t ready for takeoff. She’s standing on a massive trampoline in the middle of a parking lot in Santa Monica, surrounded by a photo crew eager to capture a cover shot of her flying in midair. But as the sun inches closer to the horizon on a warm day in late March, the 24-year-old track and field sensation feels a little unsure about the super springy material beneath her bare feet.
As the best female high jumper in the United States, Cunningham can hurl her 6-foot-1 body over a bar that’s raised as high as 2.02 meters (her personal best)—a height that’s a bit taller than the average NBA player. But now she is positioned on a competitive gymnastics apparatus that can propel her body up to 30 feet in the air and is being directed to bounce up and down and land on her back. For good reason, Cunningham doesn’t want to get injured, and there’s a legitimate risk that she might hyperextend her knees or twist her neck on the rebound—or something worse.
A nonathlete might assume that a professional high jumper loves to jump all the time, but as Cunningham later explains, “Our body is our instrument.” If that instrument gets banged out of tune for the sake of a cool photograph, then her elite sporting days could be over. And now is her time to be center stage.
For more than half a decade, Cunningham has topped the national leaderboard in her event. She won a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships, gold and silver at the World Indoor Championships (2016 and 2018) and is a two-time Olympian—though she admits some disappointment with her performances in Rio (13th) and Tokyo (6th). This summer she hopes to defend her national outdoor title in June and then claim gold in July at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon. With a home-field advantage and the full presence of her support system—her unsinkable family—can she finally make the leap to new heights?
It’s impossible to write about Vashti Cunningham and not mention her family—especially her father, Randall, who happens to be her coach. NFL fans who followed the sport in the 1980s and ’90s will surely remember the trailblazing tenure of NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, aka “the Ultimate Weapon,” who was known for his speed and scrambling ability on the field. He was also a track star in high school in Santa Barbara, where he cleared 6-foot-9 in the high jump as a senior.
When Vashti was 4, her father retired from the NFL after 16 seasons and settled the family in Las Vegas. So her motivation to pick up sports didn’t come from watching her dad. Instead, the spark that ignited her interest was something a bit rawer in nature: sibling rivalry.
It’s all on you at the end of the day. Your wins, your losses, your heights.
“It was so competitive,” Vashti says of her close relationship with her older brother, Randall II, who’s two years her senior and a former NCAA champion and U.S. Junior National champion in high jump. (In addition to her brother, she has two younger sisters, Grace and Sofia.) “Anything that he was doing, I wanted to try and do better than him or beat him at it.”
She was nipping at his heels in other ways, too, playing the role of the mischievous little sister and drawing up blueprints to prank her brother and his friends. “It was funny things—pictures of them sleeping, the route my friends and I would take getting into the room, and then what we were going to do to them,” Vashti says of the plans she mapped out in her journal. “It was nail polish on one of their foreheads, toothpaste in one of their noses.”
But mostly, she just wanted to find ways to be with her brother and his friends, so she picked up whatever sport her brother did. First it was soccer, starting in kindergarten. Then there was flag football, where she played quarterback and running back. “My brother and my dad have always had a really close-knit relationship because of football,” Vashti says. “And I used to watch him and be a little jealous of all the time my dad would spend with him. It was like me chasing my best friend all the time.” After that came basketball, which she also loved.
During those early years dabbling in various sports, her father was not her coach. But Randall was always present on the sidelines, mostly keeping quiet. Until one day he silently stepped in—and left a lasting impression on his daughter about what kind of coach he might be.
The pivotal moment came in the fourth grade, after Vashti had picked up volleyball. She says her coach just did not like her: “I was one of the strongest hitters on the team, but I used to play around a lot,” she admits. (Then later, as she reflects on her personality as a kid: “I had kind of a stinky attitude.”) Despite her skills, she remembers one game when her coach kept her on the bench while her team struggled.
“We were getting our butts whooped,” Vashti clarifies. As she sat there watching her team lose, she looked across the court at her dad, who was sitting up in the bleachers, and made eye contact. Without saying a word, he stood up, walked over to the bench and took his daughter home.
“I loved him so much in that moment,” Vashti says. “I turned and looked at my coach, and I smiled when we were walking away. Because my dad was not going to sit there and watch us lose.”
That same school year, her father took her to the track for the first time, where he was training her older brother to high jump. Of course, she immediately wanted to follow suit. And not surprisingly, she had a talent for high jumping, too. It wasn’t long before her father was coaching both kids—and he’s been coaching her ever since.
Although Vashti loved basketball and volleyball, there was something about the individuality of the high jump that called to her. There would be no more sitting on the bench in track and field. “It’s all on you at the end of the day,” she says. “Your wins, your losses, your times, your heights.”
Cunningham also loved that high jumping is a skill not everybody can do. “It’s not something that’s a natural movement like running,” she says. “It’s something you have to learn and really treat as a process. The further you get along, the more you see that every little detail counts toward your success. I think my favorite thing is just the fact that it’s not easy.”
Indeed, it’s not. High jumping requires speed and strength, and in less than 10 seconds, Cunningham must combine a flurry of skills to launch herself over a flimsy bar that’s 6 feet or more off the ground. First there are three rapid steps, followed by two opening strides, where she’s pacing herself to attack the bar. Then the last four steps are blindingly fast, just before she plants one foot for the most powerful step in the process. As she takes flight, her body twists backwards in midair, her back arches and her legs snap upward like a bullwhip so she can clear the bar. Landing on her back, she quickly somersaults like a pro wrestler to help soften the blow.
By her sophomore year in high school, she was one of the best female high jumpers in the country, and by her senior year, she was the very best, winning her first indoor national title in 2016 when she was 18 years old. About a week later she won gold at the World Indoor Championships. Five months after that, she competed at the Olympics in Rio, turned pro in lieu of college and started learning how to manage life in the spotlight.
Early in the day at the photo shoot in Santa Monica, Cunningham is thumbing through a rack of designer clothes, weighing her options. Two days earlier, there was a tornado of text messages between her and the stylist, where Vashti “hearted” pictures of dozens of looks that felt like her vibe. Now, as she tries on different outfits, there are audible gasps coming from the crew of women fluttering around her. “She looks like an angel,” whispers one member of the hair and makeup team. As the light beams on her statuesque presence, it’s impossible not to stare. Even if someone didn’t know of her athletic accomplishments, it’s clear that she’s somebody from the moment she enters a room.
Standing over 6 feet tall with limbs as graceful and sinewy as a prima ballerina, it’s perhaps no surprise to report that Vashti also models. She’s walked the runway for Off-White, the brand founded by the late Virgil Abloh, an American fashion powerhouse who died of cancer last year. And recently, she signed with a modeling agency based in Santa Monica.
Her curiosity for fashion traces back to her grade school days. But little Vashti wasn’t flipping through copies of Vogue and creating a vision board. Rather, she was admiring the outfits of a woman she saw every day: her mother. “I remember seeing my mom with these question-mark jeans. I was like, ‘What the heck? Where did you get these pants, and will I ever fit them? I hope one day I have a butt to fit those jeans,’ ” she laughs.
Her mother, Felicity, was a ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and she encouraged her daughter to lean into her creative side at an early age. Vashti loved drawing and painting and attended arts camp during the summer. And since then, she’s developed a deep fondness for landscape photography, something she dreams of pursuing professionally after she hangs up her track spikes.
That creative outlet provides balance to her life, especially when it comes to handling the mental strain of practicing an individual sport. Vashti says her artistic pursuits give her the space and time to not think about track and not be so hard on herself if a certain jump or competition doesn’t go the way she thought it would. “I have to remember that God gave me the blessing of being a professional track athlete, but this is not my life and there’s still life out there,” she says. “This is something I learned from my mom.”
Vashti continues, “To hear my mom tell me that there are other things in life, that you have desires and you can chase them but remain focused on the platform that God has given you—that was a game changer for me.”
Both of her parents are ordained pastors, and they founded Remnant Ministries in Las Vegas nearly 20 years ago. Their love and spiritual guidance clearly keep Vashti grounded, though her admiration for her mother feels particularly profound. “I’m kind of blown away at the fact that she’s my actual mother,” Vashti says. “She’s really like an angel. She is one of the most comforting people in any circumstance. She tries to understand what everybody’s going through, and she’s never ever judging anybody.”
Vashti sought her mother’s counsel a few years ago, when she decided it was time to move out of her parents’ house and carve out some independence from her father. She was at an age where most of her peers were in college, living away from home, but instead she was constantly under the watchful eye of her coach. Her mother helped her find an apartment, but her dad didn’t initially support the idea.
“I wouldn’t say he’s overly controlling,” Vashti says of her dad. “But he just enjoys being in control of things. I think with me moving out, he wouldn’t know when I was asleep or when I was at my apartment. I just think he wasn’t ready for me to move out.”
Of course, everything worked out fine. “I’m very thankful for my apartment years, even though my dad wasn’t on board,” she says with a chuckle. Today, Vashti lives in a house not far from her family home.
If there was another moment when Vashti could have used her mother’s soothing presence, it was probably in Tokyo last year. (As her coach, only her father could come with her.) After a year of delays due to the pandemic, the Summer Games in Japan were not exactly normal.
“It sucked,” Vashti admits. “When I go to track meets, I like to explore, take time by myself, but when we were in Tokyo, it felt like there was no freedom. It felt like we were always being watched or being accounted for.”
In the Olympic Village, everything was spread out due to COVID protocols, and athletes had to walk outdoors more than usual to reach athletic facilities and the dining hall. “I remember after the prelims thinking, ‘My legs are dead because I’m doing all this walking.’ I had to tell myself it was a nonfactor. ‘I’m still going to practice, and I’m still training.’ But it got in my head a little bit.”
In competition, Cunningham cleared 1.96 meters but failed to clear 1.98. She ended up tying for sixth place. Mariya Lasitskene of the Russian Olympic Committee won gold after clearing 2.04 meters. Australian Nicola McDermott took silver (2.02 m), and Ukrainian Yaroslava Mahuchikh got bronze (2.00 m).
The further you get along, the more you see that every little detail counts toward your success.
Her father told her how proud he was, how she had improved seven spots from Rio and how next time she’ll make the medal stand. Afterward, he told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “At that time, she’s trying to take everything through her mind, the disappointment of not winning gold, but at the same time emotionally trying to figure out how to get better, what could she have changed. So I give her time, and I just love on her, hug her.”
But Vashti felt defeated. “My dad was trying to encourage me in so many ways. I was like, ‘Dad, it doesn’t matter. Nothing that you’re saying to me right now matters because I didn’t execute.’ ” After the final, she immediately had to go to drug testing and then back to her room, where she cried herself to sleep. Now she would have to wait months before she would jump in competition again, and even longer before she would compete against the women who made the medal stand.
It’s been well documented that as part of his successful but unconventional training strategy, her father, Randall, limits how much Vashti jumps, both in practice and in the number of meets she competes in every year. Instead, he focuses on strength and speed training, using a lot of the techniques he picked up during his time in the NFL.
By putting a cap on how much Vashti jumps, Randall is also keeping her body fresh in the days leading up to an event and reducing the risk of injury, which is a serious concern. During his senior year at USC, her brother, Randall II, broke his leg when he decided to attempt the highest college jump in more than a decade. The footage is excruciating to watch. As he plants his left foot his tibia snaps, and he falls back on the mat, clutching his face in pain. The break required surgery, and it forced a major setback on his own desire to become a professional high jumper. Today, he still trains with his sister, he’s the athletic director at their church, and he recently got married.
The level of strain high jumping puts on an athlete’s body is intense, especially on the neck and back. “Every time I leave a competition, I have no range of motion,” Vashti says. “I can’t look behind me on either side. My back and neck get so tight because you’re repeatedly landing on your neck.” And the surface they land on isn’t exactly a pile of marshmallows. “They’ll bring in brand-new mats for big events, and it’s like jumping onto a rock because they’ve never been broken in before,” she adds.
Except for the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Vashti does not compete in the Diamond League— the most prestigious series of track and field events, held largely in Europe—but most of the world’s best high jumpers do. Instead, she only sees them at World Championships or the Olympics. So why doesn’t Vashti go head to head with her main competition more often? Does it have something to do with the limits of her father’s training strategy?
Regardless of what happens, I know I’ll always have a support community that I can be with and be happy.
“It’s more the fact that we get a certain amount of prize money going over to the Diamond League,” Vashti explains. In fact, the prize money is peanuts. At a Diamond League meet, first-place winners get $10,000, second place $6,000 and third place $3,500. If you place eighth, you get just $500. When you factor in the cost of a transatlantic flight and a long hotel stay to acclimate to the time difference, it just doesn’t seem worth it. Athletes who live in the Eastern Hemisphere have a clear advantage.
“We’re expected to go over there to train and compete but also pay for our own living and transportation,” Vashti says. “But it takes a certain amount of time for your body to adjust to new time zones. Right now, the prize money is not enough for the traveling.”
This past March, Vashti chose not to travel to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for the World Indoor Championships. She was considering it, but the organizing body, World Athletics, told her that personal coaches weren’t allowed and all athletes would need to remain in a COVID bubble. So Vashti and her training partner and close friend, Jelena Rowe, who also is coached by her father, didn’t go.
Because of the war in Ukraine, World Athletics has banned all Russian and Belarussian athletes from competing for the foreseeable future, which meant that Tokyo gold medalist Mariya Lasitskene wasn’t present either. After fleeing her native Ukraine by car three days earlier, Tokyo bronze medalist Yaroslava Mahuchikh won gold in Belgrade after clearing a height of 2.02 meters. “It’s a gold medal for all Ukrainian people,” she told reporters after an emotional win. She’s now training in Germany.
“That was such a victory,” Vashti says of Mahuchikh. “And I’m so happy she did that.”
Now, with the outdoor season looming, Vashti is focused on the nationals in June and the worlds in July. “I’m so excited that the World Championships are going to be on U.S. soil,” she says. “We’ll finally be at an advantage of being at home.” With a personal best of 2.02 meters—the same height that Mahuchikh cleared in Belgrade—she has a real shot at gold again. “I’m ready to try and go higher,” she says.
It’s worth noting that her personal record came at a moment when she felt ready. In May 2021 at the Chula Vista Field Fest in Southern California, Vashti already had the win clinched, and the initial push to raise the bar to 2.02 meters didn’t come from her father. But she told him she wanted to go for it and he gave her his approval.
And then she cleared it.
“Sometimes I have to show him that I want to challenge myself, because he really tries to look out for my body and my health,” Vashti says. “There are times when, if I’ve won a meet already, he’ll want me to shut it down. I think I got comfortable doing that instead of pushing myself, so that was one of those moments where I decided it was time for me to push myself.”
Back in Santa Monica, Vashti is testing the trampoline with a series of smaller jumps. Time is running out to capture a cover shot. The goal is to have her jump up and down to get some air and then land on her back while the camera captures her on the rebound. But as an experienced high jumper, she doesn’t want to land on her back. She fully comprehends the risks, and this reporter does not want to be one of the people responsible for injuring a world-class athlete. The problem word here is “back.” Back means spine and neck, all the spots that tense up in Vashti’s body when she competes.
“Land on your butt,” I suggest. “Butt,” it turns out, is the magic word. Landing on your butt is less scary; there’s a bit of extra padding on the rebound. “Exactly,” Vashti confirms later with a little laugh.
Before long, she isn’t bouncing on the trampoline—she’s floating. Her movements are so graceful it looks like she could drift into the sky, a celestial being soaring toward the heavens.
As she reaches for new heights, Vashti Cunningham credits her biggest support system: her family. “I know there’s never going to be a moment where I can’t turn to one of them and have them encourage or love me,” she says. “I feel like I’m going to be good for life, regardless of what happens, because at the end of the day, I know I’ll always have a home base and a support community that I can be with and be happy. I can just be with my family at the house and be happy. Jelena and I are always talking about if there were a zombie apocalypse. I’m just like, ‘We’re good. Our unit is good.’ ”
And with her whole unit supporting her in Eugene at the World Championships, their love might lift her higher than ever before.