Amy Acuff leaves strong legacy for new crop of high jumpers

Amy Acuff fell short of making her sixth U.S. Olympic team. Getty Images

EUGENE, Ore. -- Just 18 years old, Vashti Cunningham is the reigning world indoor high jump champion. Trying to qualify for her first Olympics in the opening round of the U.S. track and field trials Friday afternoon, she was so focused on her jumps that she did not distract herself by talking to competitors inside the Hayward Field track.

Not that there wasn't someone competing there alongside Cunningham who could provide strong advice for her future career.

Amy Acuff first competed at the track trials at age 16 in 1992 before the Barcelona Games. She did not qualify at those trials, but she made the next five U.S. Olympic teams, competing in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London. Despite being a month shy of her 41st birthday, having two children and a number of health issues this year, she was fighting for her sixth Olympics in Rio.

Unfortunately, Acuff failed to advance to the high jump finals, missing her final three attempts at 1.84 meters (6 feet, one-half inch). With mixed emotions, she walked away from the high jump, and her career.

"I feel closure," Acuff said. "I guess I felt like, 'Oh well, I tried my best and that's all you can hope for.' I am officially retired from track and field. I said that before, but it's for real now."

Meanwhile, Cunningham qualified for Sunday's finals, along with American record-holder and three-time Olympian Chaunte Lowe. The daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, Vashti is considered the favorite by many, though she says she doesn't consider herself that way. "There are people who have done amazing things before me," she said. "I'm just one of the jumpers."

Acuff said not to count out Lowe as the favorite, either, though she is definitely impressed by Cunningham.

"Vashti looks great," Acuff said. "I had never seen her jump before. She just looks so natural and elastic. I'm sure she'll have a great career."

Asked for what advice she has to pass to Cunningham and others, Acuff said: "Just take care of your bodies. There are so many great jumpers littered on the side of the freeway to the Olympics. Mainly ankles. A lot of people are just done by their late 20s due to injuries, so you have to be really smart about your training and very open to looking at it and being realistic about what you can handle."

So how was Acuff able to jump so high for so long?

"I think because I just love it," she said. "At the core of it, I just love the art of jumping. My biggest hope was to come here and have that perfect timing and beautiful jump. That's the funnest part."

Despite having never medaled in her five Olympic competitions (she came closest with a fourth-place finish at the 2004 Games in Athens), she definitely has a symbolic Olympic torch to pass on to Cunningham, perhaps one that will help the younger jumper compete all the way to the 2036 Games.

"I think that for Amy going into this meet, and her willpower is just amazing. She's mentally stronger than a lot of other people, to come and fight and jump and do what she loves. I respect her a lot for that," Cunningham said. "After the years she's competed, the fact she still has the fight to come back and compete again is amazing and I hope that I'm like that when I'm older."

Given how well Cunningham is jumping at such a young age -- she won indoor worlds with a leap of 1.95 meters -- she could definitely win a medal, perhaps gold. Not that she says she feels any pressure in that respect.

"There is not as much pressure as there is on people who have been here before," Cunningham said. "I think I've done well at the beginning of the season. … I'm trying to win [Sunday's final]. Get first place and go into the Olympics with that confidence."