Vashti Cunningham flutters her fingers, presses her lips tight into a determined scowl, bores her eyes into the ground, rocks backward and, on a calm January afternoon in Las Vegas, explodes. Her knees drive forward. Her torso tilts at a 45-degree angle. Her gold-printed Nike spikes dig into synthetic rubber. She plants a slender left leg. She twists. She bursts, and soars.
And for a fleeting moment, hanging beneath an overcast sky, she feels an unexplainable feeling, one that only a select few earthly women will ever feel. “Just a little bit free,” she says of those split seconds. “A little separated from everybody.” She contorts her lithe, 6-foot-1, 125-pound body up and over a high jump bar that’s taller than her. She kicks her feet. She thuds to a mat. She somersaults.
The bar sits still.
“Yaaass!” an excited spectator screams.
But her coach, standing to the side in a USA Track & Field polo, twiddling a toothpick between his teeth, doesn’t move a facial muscle.
He does a few seconds later to speak. He demonstrates a flaw in her technique. She tells him the problem is with a piece of equipment. He assures her that no, it’s her. “Can you come ‘ere?” she pleads with him. Her voice gets agitated. They disagree.
“Again. Let’s go. That wasn’t good enough,” he tells her.
“Whatdyu say?” Vashti shoots back.
“That wasn’t good enough.”
“OK,” Vashti concedes.
At times, throughout this early-2020 training session, tension fills the tranquil 55-degree air. Vashti (pronounced VASH-tie) pushes through it, her brow taut and focused beneath a bouncing mane of black hair. The Tokyo Olympics loom in the distance. The reigning world bronze medalist feels uncharacteristically slow. After one collision with the bar, she lets out a frustrated groan.
Her coach, though, faults her arm movement and foot placement. They duck inside to check the tape. He tells her, while rewatching on a wall-mounted TV, that one of her jumps was “lazy.” Later, in the weight room, he extends her sets midstream. Five-second countdowns take 10. “What is this!?” she yells at him. “Finish,” he tells her.
But when she does, there’s no lasting friction. Five minutes later, laughter fills the room. Because coach is more than coach; he’s also dad.
Randall Cunningham, the former NFL quarterback-turned-pastor, is the only high jump coach his eldest daughter has ever known. They’re in Tokyo this week as a tandem, aiming to bring their nation its first Olympic gold in the event this century. And Vashti firmly believes that their edgy back-and-forths, like on that day 18 months ago in Vegas, are one of several reasons she’s here as a medal favorite.
“Because he is my dad,” she affirms, “we are able to communicate better than if he was just another coach.”
Father coaching daughter
Vashti’s ascent in a sport she was practically built for has very much been a family affair. She followed in her older brother’s footsteps. Now her younger sister, Grace, is following in hers. They all practice at a property that Randall bought and built across the street from his booming church. During that January 2020 session, the family’s two dogs, Mango and Tango, careened through the training room barking. During film study, their snouts lapped up water and rustled in food. As Vashti jumped, they rambunctiously clawed at a window, up on their hind legs, eager for a better view.
The whole family arrived to spectate as well. Felicity — Vashti’s mom, Randall’s wife — sat on a bench opposite the high jump pit, alternately watching intently, lending encouragement, and coordinating her other children’s schedules by phone. She brought Grace, a high schooler, whose track practice Randall would coach after Vashti’s; and Sophia, a grade schooler, who pranced up and down the facility's less-than-full-size track. At one point, Sophia found two rocks by the beach volleyball court and began clacking them together. Vashti seemed distracted.
“Sophia!” Randall snapped. “Go over there with mom, and siddown.”
Later, when Vashti nailed a jump, she squealed. “Ti-Ti!” she exclaimed.
The sisters still call their Olympian sibling by that childhood nickname, and even Randall, a few times before practice, does too. Throughout the afternoon, there are mentions of ACT prep and dog food. There are requests for phone chargers and backpacks. There are packages delivered, and playful interactions, and sudden realizations — during weight room circuits, in between leg press reps and 200 RPMs on a stationary bike — that Mango and Tango need to be let outside.
Life and track, at times, seem inseparable, and a few years ago, that’s exactly how Vashti felt. High jump followed her from practice to the dinner table, to leisure time, and sometimes to bed, day after day after day. “It was very, very exhausting,” she admits. “So it was difficult for me, at first, to appreciate my dad being my coach.”
But over time, both learned to put on and take off proverbial hats, to flip switches between father-daughter and coach-pupil. Vashti says Randall has “grown so much in understanding me as a person and an athlete.” Dinner conversations now veer elsewhere. And when Vashti feels “overwhelmed in the sport,” and when she feels like she can’t talk to dad “because he's so in it,” she has her mom, her “angel.” Felicity, she says, “has really been the balancing person in my life,” able to relieve stress and complete puzzles.
Vashti also moved out of the family home three years ago, first into an apartment, then into her own Vegas house. As she climbed high jump rankings, and shed “Randall Cunningham’s daughter” as her primary moniker, she also climbed into her very own adult life. She spends downtime at two downtown Vegas resale shops that her friends own. She’s into photography — she wants to someday work for National Geographic — and street-style fashion. “My mom's sense of style has allowed me to see things how I want to,” she says, “and have the confidence to dress the way that I want to.”
And all of that time away from the Cunningham facility has allowed her to cherish the benefits of dad-as-coach. The respect that they have for each other. The ability to speak their minds. The willingness to admit when they’re wrong. Their relationship allows Randall to criticize, and Vashti to respond sarcastically, or to scream “DAD!” when she feels that he’s crossed a line.
Randall isn’t put off by any of it, because love underlies all of it. He values her perspective. And he likes the edginess. “I just want to laugh,” he says. “Because I know I would do the same thing.”
Vashti's faith in her father
Some outsiders tend to question how a longtime football man could possibly be the optimal coach for the nation’s best athlete in an unrelated sport.
Randall, though, would offer them a story. Once upon a time, he was a self-taught track star. As a kid, he’d run barefoot in ripped jeans. In his early teens, he’d pull out a high jump pit and stands himself to practice — no coach, no film study, no oversight.
He gave up track for football in college, but he tucked away a baseline grasp of how the sport felt. When his kids showed hints of elite jumping talent, he dove back in. He studied coaching techniques, both American and Eastern European. He pored over videos, and downloaded some clips of greats. Years later, he’d pull up a few on his phone at practice, pausing and rewinding, impressing on Vashti the finer points of the now-ubiquitous Fosbury Flop. Their training program has been pulled together piecemeal, bits and parts copied and pasted from all over.
But it’s also unique. Unorthodox. Most elite high jumpers actually practice high jumping, at least once a week. Vashti rarely does — only once or twice a month. She spends most of her time in the weight room doing manageable lifts.
“Everybody else will do a bunch of jumps, a bunch of jumps, a bunch of jumps, and their bodies get broken down and sore,” Randall says. His focus is body maintenance, nutrition, sleep, anything to refrain from overtraining.
“So they've stayed away from abusive, wear-and-tear, heavy-use injuries,” says Dave Kerin, USA Track & Field’s women’s high jump chair.
The downside, Kerin says, is a lack of comfort in competition, and Vashti admits she occasionally feels that. Her mind sometimes races as she prepares for her approach. Overthinking, like overtraining, can be counterproductive.
But more often than not, she glides rhythmically. She flew over 2.02 meters in late-May, a personal best, and at the time a world-leading height this year. Kerin believes that her “chances for a medal are great,” and gold is in play, on Saturday at the Olympics (6:35 a.m. ET).
The other downside to minimal jumping, Kerin says, is the “psychological aspect.” Some athletes “just can't connect the dots” between weight training and results. “Some people need to jump for validation or affirmation,” he says. When they don’t get it, belief and effort can wane.
But Vashti’s never have. Her faith has never wavered. Because her coach has been by her side, often literally, for her entire life.
“I did not ever think that I would be coached by anybody else,” she says.
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