The incredible athleticism of Vashti Cunningham, by Cathal Dennehy


I have seen the future of the high jump and it is Vashti Cunningham. The young high jumper presented her athleticism with the lithe build of a young jumper and the savvy of a veteran jumper of a decade.

Here is Cathal Dennehy's observations of the new World Junior record holder.

Cunningham_Vashti1-USout15.jpgVashti Cunningham, photo by

By Cathal Dennehy

Midway through the final day of action at the US Indoor Championships, a slow realization began to ripple through the crowd at the Oregon Convention Center that something special was occurring before their eyes.

The object of their admiration - and exasperation - was the incredible athleticism of an 18-year-old who has yet to experience her senior prom, but is now the leading high jumper in the world.

Vashti Cunningham - who is the daughter of former NFL star Randall Cunningham - set a world junior indoor high jump record and overall high school record when sailing over 1.99m at her second attempt, bringing the Portland fans to their feet, their applause and voices filling the arena in appreciation.

"It hasn't hit me yet," said Cunningham afterwards, though the calm nature of her words suggested she was taking it all in her stride.

From early in the morning, Cunningham felt the omens were good after awakening to grey skies and damp streets. "I love the rain," said the Las Vegas native. "The weather had me in a good mood, and the warmup area was really nice, so I went into the competition more than ready."

As soon as she cleared her opening height of 1.75m with much to spare, that was already obvious. Cunningham went on to sail over 1.80m, 1.85m, 1.90m, 1.93m and 1.96m on her first attempts, which was more than enough to take victory over Elizabeth Patterson and Chaunte Lowe, who could only manage 1.93m.

Given her father was a former high jumper and her brother, Randall Jr, has jumped 2.26m, Cunningham grew up as a student of the event and on Saturday, she found it slightly surreal to suddenly be competing against - and beating - her former idols.

"I've been watching Chaunte [Lowe] for a long time and she encourages me a lot," said Cunningham. "She gives me words of wisdom. This gives me a lot of confidence, that I'm now up there and maintaining with all these girls. I knew I had that in me."

Though she clipped the bar on her first attempt at 1.99m, Cunningham corrected her mistake on her next effort, and her clearance broke Maria Kuchina's world junior indoor record of 1.97m. Indeed with such a ridiculous talent, it appears Cunningham is now destined to emulate the Russian and achieve success on a global level as a senior.

Watching alongside the high jump competition on Saturday was father Randall - who coaches Cunningham - and he was often seen holding up placards with motivational slogans on them to keep his protegee's mind on the task at hand. After the competition, though, there was scant time for them to embrace as his daughter faced a thronging media pack.

"I didn't hug him," she said. "I just gave him a look. We never really show our happiness, but we did a little bit today."

Cunningham's mother, Felicity, appears to also have played a part in gifting her daughter with such athletic genes, as she was a 5ft 11in former professional ballerina with the Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's no surprise, then, that the 6ft 1in Cunningham, who is rail-thin, is perfectly suited to the elastic demands of the high jump.

Though her ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympic Games later this year, Cunningham's performance qualified - and launched her into title contention - for next week's IAAF World Indoor Championships. She now leads the world rankings and will enter the event as clear favourite.

"The goal next week is to jump 6ft 7in or 6ft 8in (2.00-2.03m) or whatever it takes to win," she said. "I don't feel the pressure. My Dad has taught me to keep my eyes set on what I want to do and not pay attention to anyone else."

While that may be the case, there's no escaping that her performance ensured that plenty of people will now be paying attention to Cunningham on the road to Rio this summer, something she hopes won't be the case when she returns to high school in Las Vegas next week.

"Hopefully it'll just be the same as when I left," she said. "I don't like a lot of attention on me."

Though on the track, Cunningham now has some important dates pencilled in her diary, off the track she is busy getting ready for events that serve as a necessary reminder of just how young she is.

"We have our prom on April 9th," she said, "then our senior trip to Disneyland, and then graduation."

After that, who knows to what heights her star will ascend. Right now, though, it couldn't be shining any brighter.

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