To jump higher, Vashti Cunningham told an NFL quarterback

TOKYO – Vashti Cunningham doesn’t have many spaces left to check the high jump.

At just 23, she won national championships and a world indoor title. An Olympic medal, preferably gold, is just about all that’s left for an athlete whose parentage exploits might explain their showjumping sense.

His father and coach Randall, the former NFL quarterback who played primarily with the Philadelphia Eagles, used to jump over some really big offensive and defensive linemen to get into the zone. goals. Her mother, Felicity Cunningham, was a ballerina at the Dance Theater of Harlem, a profession that requires a good set of springs.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that their daughter is a world-class high jumper. Cunningham finished 13th at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, when she was still a teenager, just five months after winning the world indoor high jump title. At the athletics world championships in Doha, Qatar two years ago, she finished third.

To climb to the top step of the podium in Tokyo, Cunningham and her father developed an unconventional strategy: she doesn’t practice jumping at all. How little does Cunningham jump in training? As rarely as one day every three weeks, and no more than 10 times on the day of the jump. Instead of jumping, she focuses on strength and speed training and technique.

“I put my trust in God and in the weight room,” Cunningham said in an interview earlier this year.

The strategic shift was born out of necessity. Ahead of the 2019 season, Cunningham underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his ankle. After recovering, going to the bar whenever she wanted was no longer an option. His father insisted that the key to his success was to jump less and less. But a jump day every three weeks?

It required a leap of faith that speaks to an ever-evolving and not always fluid, multi-faceted relationship between Cunningham and his father. Anytime, any day, he wears the hat of daddy, coach, or preacher – Randall Cunningham is the senior pastor at Remnant Ministries Church in Las Vegas.

It’s a lot of time with her dad, especially for a 23-year-old woman. Trusting the path blazed for her by her father, who participated in the high jump in high school and went up to 6ft 10in, has had its moments.

Vashti Cunningham played just about every sport she could growing up – flag football, volleyball, soccer, and basketball, in addition to track and field.

Upon entering high school, she wanted to become an athlete in three sports. Her father told her to choose two. She wanted to play basketball.

She played point guard and loved having the ball in her hands. But a talented track athlete she and her father knew was injured while playing basketball. With her encouragement, she chose volleyball to accompany athletics, which was her best sport.

In her senior year of high school, Cunningham was the nation’s top female high jumper. She was also very good at volleyball and was recruited by the University of Georgia and the University of Southern California for the sport.

She desperately wanted to leave Las Vegas and be a student. She had just become the world indoor high jump champion. Sponsorship offers were starting to arrive.

Randall Cunningham asked his daughter if she wanted to make money or be a broke student. She chose what she thought was the obvious answer.

Initially, things did not go so well. Her father wanted her home at 9 p.m. every day, which didn’t suit an 18-year-old whose friends had a lot more freedom. At home, he would sometimes pull her in front of a screen to watch high jump videos until late at night.

“It got tough, all the time one-on-one, doing all the hard work with no teammates and no one to joke with,” said Vashti Cunningham. “It got very serious. It became the center of everything in my life. It became more of a job.

The happy medium came after a year, when Vashti Cunningham got her own apartment about a 20 minute drive from her parents and about 10 minutes from the private gymnasium and workout facility her father had built for her and the grip. of athletes he trains. , including his older brother, who was not on the Olympic team.

Randall Cunningham said there were times after Vashti graduated from college – and still are today – when she looked at him and said, “I just want you to be my dad today.” He did, which helped convince her that he had her best interests at heart.

But then came bone spur surgery, rehab, and a training program that didn’t involve a lot of jumping. That’s no small matter in an event where confidence – the ability to look at a bar more than a half a foot above your head and say, “I can take my whole body over it.” of that ”- can play a big role. With so much time between training jumps, would muscle memory still be there when competitions arrive?

It all depends on the training school you enroll in.

Cliff Rovelto, the high jump expert who trains at Kansas State University and consulted with Cunningham, said the thinking about how often a young elite athlete should jump is “everywhere.” Rovelto tends to be in the less is more camp which emphasizes strength training, technique and sprinting rather than hovering over the bar several days a week.

“If you want to compete at a high level you have to train,” Rovelto said. “When you do more jumps, the body breaks down because the cumulative effect wears off on you. He said that a jump session every two weeks is common among like-minded coaches.

Randall Cunningham, however, went further.

At first, the schedule terrified her. But then she went to a competition and realized how fresh and healthy she felt. His body still knew what to do.

She makes up for days and weeks without jumping by sitting quietly at night and visualizing herself in competition, rising above the bar and descending on the protective mat.

It seems to be working. Earlier this year, she set a personal best of 6 feet 7½ inches. Its competition begins Thursday morning in Tokyo with the finals scheduled for Saturday.

Dwight Stones, the two-time Olympic high jump medalist, said the Cunninghams seemed to have figured out how to adjust Vashti’s curved approach to the bar so that it minimizes his loss of momentum.

“I think he’s the greatest athlete to ever play at his post, and he jumped high to a hell of a good level. But you don’t have to be a great technician to be a great jumper, and usually when someone like that trains at this level it’s a disaster, ”Stones said of Randall Cunningham. “And yet they knew they had a problem with the momentum and they figured it out.”


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