With a blend of potential and credential, Vashti Cunningham elevates herself and her sport
LAS VEGAS -- A month after Vashti Cunningham turned pro, she fought with her dad about homework and bedtime.
An 18-year-old senior at Bishop Gorman High School, Vashti had been given a month to complete a seven-page, double-spaced paper on "Pride and Prejudice" for her English class. But here she was, a night before it was due, staring at a blank computer screen.
Her father, former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, who doubles as a coach, became more and more annoyed by this procrastination that was causing her to miss out on crucial sleep -- the pros don't do that, the pros do the little things (she had heard that a million times). And she was a pro, like every other pro.
She also was a senior and, like most every other senior, she had senioritis.
Except she knew that she was not like every other senior. In March, she had signed with Nike, forgoing a college career, and then won the high jump title at the IAAF World Indoor Championships and the $40,000 purse that went along with it. That was a week after winning the U.S. indoor title. No American woman has jumped a better height in 2016 than Cunningham.
Because she's just 18 and possibly still growing at 6-foot-1, because she has a pedigree that seems to have been constructed for high jumping, because she is seen as both natural talent and untapped potential, many believe that she's not only the United States' best hope for a high jump medal in Rio but also the future of the sport in America.
"Can she be the world record holder? I think she can be," two-time Olympic high jump bronze medalist Dwight Stones said. "I think the potential is there."
So as she hit the track the day after her late night with Jane Austen on the computer -- frustration between father and daughter still simmering -- she kept her headphones on a little longer than usual as she ran through warm-ups at Silverado High School, where her father coaches football. This is where she occasionally practices when the track at UNLV, her father's alma mater, isn't available.
Today, it's just the Silverado distance team finishing up practice, checking cell phones and trying to find some shade in the 84-degree dry heat. Like most of those student-athletes, Vashti will drive back to her parents' home after practice and eat dinner (the Cunninghams are hosting Taco Tuesday for Vashti's church youth group).
"Is that Cunningham's daughter?" one of the Silverado runners asks.
Another runner glances up. "Yeah," he says, quickly returning to his phone.
Even after U.S. and world indoor titles, that's what this world still sees her as: Cunningham's daughter.
But together on the track, Vashti is not Cunningham's daughter -- she is athlete; he's coach.
The 6-foot-4 Randall walks up to the pit and sets the bar far above his head.
Across the track, as she runs her 400-meter warm-up, Vashti knows exactly how high the bar sits, down to the centimeter.
Randall walks Vashti to where her approach starts, 50-odd feet back from the pit. Coach and athlete stare down the bar -- at 2.10 meters (6 feet, 10.68 inches), it's just a hair over the world record, which has stood since 1987, 11 years before Vashti was born.
"Let's just look at it," coach says to athlete. "Because if you really want to be the best, there it is.
Randall coaches high jump like he played football -- he's completely absorbed.
He was a good high jumper in high school, but past that, his knowledge of "How To Train A World Champion" has come from taking what he learned as a football player and applying it to high jump, with an assist from Internet research.
He watches film of Eastern European and Russian high jumpers like he did of defensive linemen. And now, Randall sees the nuances in the movements of Bulgarian world record holder Stefka Kostadinova because he learned how to see the movements of former defensive end Bruce Smith.
When Vashti showed promise in the sport, Randall studied up on biometrics and muscle groups, discovering which ones are the most important to the verticality of a high jumper.
I cross my fingers and hope and pray that she'll do what she has the potential of doing.Dick Fosbury
Then he asked himself which stretches he remembered being the most helpful during his playing career. For his hamstrings. His quads. His calves, hip flexors and groin.
Those would be the stretches Vashti would do before every practice and meet. When Randall thought about which plyometrics made him the sorest as a player, he decided those would be the workouts Vashti would do, too.
"I think he's just so used to what he used to do and he knows that it worked for him, so he knows it'll work for me," Vashti said. "I think he gets it from football ... it's just a part of him."
But he cannot teach her the genetic side. That comes from him, of course, but maybe even more from his wife, Felicity, who was a professional ballerina when the two met in the early '90s.
She had come from South Africa to perform at the Dance Theatre of Harlem by way of the Canadian National Ballet. She had always been a tall, rangy ballerina. In South Africa and Canada, they taught The Royal Ballet School curriculum, a ballet that favored a shorter, more compact dancer. But in Harlem, American dance pioneer Arthur Mitchell enjoyed the Balanchine technique, a ballet that extends lines and accentuates ballerinas who have tremendous jumping ability. Balanchine ballerinas have a rare ability to contort themselves in flight to make it appear as though they're almost floating through the air during their jumps.
"All of my girls had to jump," Mitchell said. "But Felicity was very athletic and had an unusually high jump."
Felicity was a perfect fit for Mitchell. Vashti may be a perfect fit for high jump.
"She jumps very gracefully," Felicity said of Vashti. "She makes it look effortless, so you don't see the strain in her jumping. [In ballet], you work so hard but you have to make everything look like you're hardly straining to jump and get all your pirouettes in."
It helps Vashti to have a mother who also trained as a professional in a pursuit that requires attention to every aspect of one's life. It also helps that Felicity doesn't train Vashti.
While Randall has a hard time separating coach and dad, Felicity is just mom. "She needs that break," Felicity said. "She needs that person where she can just come and complain and vent."
But, once Vashti is done complaining and venting, Felicity can also tell her that most of the time Randall is right. With the Olympics and a gold medal and the world record as a goal, every part of every day matters. It's a commitment and a sacrifice, and sometimes it means even more to hear Felicity say that than Randall. Because as George Balenchine, creator of the Balenchine technique, once said, "Ballet dancing is arduous, strenuous activity. Students are engaged in physical training that rivals the training Olympic athletes undergo."
Unlike most 18-year-olds, Vashti didn't get excited about dressing up for senior prom or having a graduation party this year.
Unlike most high jumpers, when she failed to clear any height at the Nevada state championships during her junior season, she didn't smack the pit or curse. And this year, when she said, "I'm very excited about being a part of the Nike family," during her professional announcement, there was no expression on her face.
When Randall is correcting her, when he is scolding her, when he is congratulating her, she always looks the same. When she's angry, livid, ecstatic, she always looks the same.
Vashti calls it "neutral face," and it has become her natural state of being. It's not that she's not happy or angry; it's just that you're not going to see it on her face.
"I don't know how to just jump for joy," Vashti said.
She jumps very gracefully. She makes it look effortless, so you don't see the strain in her jumping.Felicity Cunningham
Only recently has she started reacting to her jumps, maybe with a smile, cheer or wave. And that, she explains, is for her dad and the fans. They like to see that kind of personality, and now it's a part of her job.
But that piece of her personality, which seems displaced for both an 18-year-old girl and a high-level athlete, might actually be the part of her that best indicates how ready she is for this world. Vashti is neither flighty nor emotional; she's a professional going about her business in the professional world.
"I'm really impressed," said Dick Fosbury, who won the gold at the 1968 Olympics with his famed 'Fosbury Flop,' which has become the standard form in high jump. "Just her demeanor. She's very calm. Nothing seems to faze her."
That unflappable nature has never been more important than it is now, heading into the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Since her jump of 1.99 meters (6 feet, 6.25 inches) at the U.S. indoor championships, Vashti hasn't cleared better than 1.94 meters in an outdoor meet this year. That's just the third best for an American woman, and 10th best worldwide during outdoor meets in 2016. Only three American high jumpers earn a roster spot for Rio.
But make no mistake: Even without stellar outdoor performances this season, there's talk of what Vashti could be, what she could accomplish at this Olympics -- particularly given the uncertainty of the powerful Russian squad -- and beyond.
And only is that true with an 18-year-old. If she were 28 and won a U.S. and world indoor title, it'd be considered a great career. But since she is 18, this is her starting line.
Potential -- that's the word it always comes back to with Vashti. She has done what so few other American high jumpers have done, but still, there's so much more.
"I don't want to put unreasonable expectations on Miss Cunningham," Fosbury said. "I cross my fingers and hope and pray that she'll do what she has the potential of doing."
She is the Balanchine ballerina and the mobile quarterback. The neutral face and the effortless strain. The genetic basis and the potential. It's all right there wrapped into one in Vashti. And as Vashti and Randall stare down the world-record height, his words seem to mean as much about that height as they do his own athlete and daughter.
Because if you really want to be the best, there it is. Right there.