There’s a weight of expectation that comes as being the child of a famous athlete. Years of questions, wondering if you’ll follow in their athletic prowess, and more often than not we’ve seen promise crushed under this pressure. That didn’t happen to Vashti Cunningham, who now enters the Tokyo Games with an outside chance of winning gold, but with inherited DNA that tells her to ignore the odds.
Cunningham is the daughter of former Eagles legend Randall Cunningham, but that’s where the comparisons will end. It’s a fun foot note, a curiosity, but Vashti is far better defined by her own athletic prowess, rather than anything her father did. However, there’s unmistakable athletic ability inherited not only from her quarterback father, but her mother Felicity de Jager Cunningham, who was a ballerina at the Dance Theatre of Harlem.
A touted athlete through high school. Cunningham quickly showed an incredible ability in the high jump. Debuting nationally in 2015, Vashti set the high school record with a 1.94 meter jump, and followed that up later in the year with gold at the Pan American Junior Athletics Championships. It was becoming quickly apparent that a great high jumper was coming into her own, with future Olympic potential.
That potential came sooner than anyone, including Vashti was ready for. Becoming one of the youngest track and field athletes ever to compete for the USA in Rio, the moment seemed too big for her. Cunningham had the best jump of the year in Portland, and the stage was set for her — but the moment proved to be too much. Crushed with a 13th place finish, Cunningham knew she could do so much better, but proving it would need to wait for another year.
Bouncing back, Cunningham dominated the U.S. scene in both indoor and outdoor track and field. She won gold in 2017 twice, but still failed to make a mark internationally. Possibly a holdover from her Olympic disappointment, it was clear Vashti still wasn’t herself.
Things took a turn in 2018. Cunningham was still dominating in the United States, but started to back it up with more success overseas. She won silver at the World Indoor Championships in 2018, and bronze at the World Championships in 2019.
Unfortunately the delay to the games meant we never got to see her complete comeback to glory. It would need to wait a year, but the wait has been worth it. At the U.S. Olympic Trials she finished first, and now enters Tokyo as one of the favorites to medal — but with a substantial rival to best.
Russia’s Mariya Lasitskene is considered such a lock for gold in Tokyo that the odds being offered are even. Nobody is a better high jumper in the world in the women’s competition than Lasitskene, whose personal best is a full 10 cm more than Cunningham’s. That said, you can never count out anyone when it comes to the Olympics. Just as Vashti showed us in 2016 there are myriad reasons an athlete can struggle when it comes to games. Now, with the entire nation behind her, Vashti Cunningham is ready to shock the world as being so much more than “Randall Cunningham’s daughter.”
How to watch Vashti Cunningham in Tokyo
- Women’s high jump qualifiers: Wednesday, August 4 at 7:10 p.m. ET
- Women’s high jump finals: Saturday, August 7 at 5:35 a.m. ET