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Rested, refreshed Vashti Cunningham seeks Olympic gold

The training, the meets, the jet-setting around the globe for the previous year. It all started to take its toll on Vashti Cunningham.

As the start of her 2020 schedule approached, the top-ranked high jumper in the U.S. felt worn out.

“I got a month off and just remember feeling tired before the season and just feeling like, ‘Dang, I didn’t even have time to myself,’ ” Cunningham said. “Just having to get right back in it and then training through it, it felt long.”

Had the Tokyo Olympics taken place as scheduled last summer, there’s no guarantee Cunningham would have been at her peak physically or mentally.

But one of the unintended outcomes of the Games being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic was it allowed the Las Vegas native to pursue interests outside of her sport. She dabbled in fashion and explored her longtime passion for photography.

By the time this season rolled around, Cunningham was refreshed and jumping her best.

The daughter of former UNLV and NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham won the high jump at the U.S. trials in June to qualify for her second Olympics and is looking to become the first American woman to win gold in the high jump since 1988.

“I was definitely able to focus on myself in that time and attack some of the things that I wanted to,” Vashti Cunningham said, “and the things that I have been planning and creating in my mind and writing down but not being able to actually pursue them because of training or meets and traveling.

“After the year that we’ve all had, and the time off and the time to focus mentally on what’s going on, I just feel really blessed to have accomplished the things I’ve accomplished.”

‘Two-meter club’

Vashti (pronounced VASH-tie) Cunningham won the 2016 indoor world championship during her senior year at Bishop Gorman and signed an endorsement deal with Nike days later. At the age of 18, shebecame the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics since 1980.

After finishing 13th that summer in Rio de Janeiro, Cunningham at the age of 23 now is a nine-time U.S. indoor and outdoor champion.

In 2019, she earned a bronze medal in the high jump at the IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar, but it was after that season when fatigue started to set in.

As the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of track and field meets around the globe in 2020, Cunningham started to lose focus on her athletic goals.

“We kind of just get into a mode of, ‘Are we training for nothing?’ Are we just training to train? Are we just pushing our bodies for no reason?’ ” Cunningham said. “That was probably the hardest part for me.”

With the Tokyo Olympics on hold, Cunningham chose to use the time off for personal growth.

She soaked up the fashion scene in Los Angeles and shopped the area’s thrift stores looking for vintage clothing and inspiration for her own designs. In the past, Cunningham worked with Nike to design track uniforms.

Cunningham, who modeled for renowned clothing designer Virgil Abloh in Paris in 2018, also delved into film photography after using digital cameras since seventh grade.

“She’s now growing into a mature young lady. She’s become more of an entrepreneur and a businessperson, as well,” said Randall Cunningham, Vashti’s coach. “People are contacting her. They want her to go to speaking, question-and-answer sessions. They want to take her on a speaking tour, just really represent women.”

Randall Cunningham reduced his daughter’s training schedule from five days to four during the pandemic in order to rest her body and mind.

When she returned to competition in February, Cunningham set an indoor personal best by clearing 2.0 meters (6 feet, 6¾ inches) to win an American Track League meet at Fayetteville, Arkansas. The mark is third on the all-time U.S. indoor list.

“She’s in a whole other club now,” Randall Cunningham said.

In May at the Chula Vista Field Fest near San Diego, Cunningham posted her lifetime best outdoors with a clearance of 2.02 meters (6 feet, 7½ inches).

Wearing her lucky, diamond Hello Kitty ring, she was the lone competitor over 1.96 meters (6 feet, 5 inches) at the Olympic Trials last month in Eugene, Oregon.

“I feel I’m different in the way of how I think while I’m competing, how I can really feel myself now and understand my body and how I feel when I’m jumping,” Cunningham said. “I really know exactly what I’m doing wrong and what I need to improve right after I take an attempt. I feel like that’s definitely a different part of me as an athlete.”

Seeking gold

Cunningham enters the Olympic competition ranked fourth in the world, and her mark at Chula Vista is No. 2 this season behind Yaroslava Mahuchikh of Ukraine. The 19-year-old sensation cleared 2.03 meters (6 feet, 8 inches)at a meet in Stockholm on July 4.

Mariya Lasitskene, competing as an authorized neutral athlete, is the reigning world champion and favorite for the gold medal when qualifying begins Aug. 5.

The world’s top-ranked high jumper was a leading contender in 2016 but was unable to compete after the Russian Track and Field Federation was banned from the Olympics for doping.

Yuliya Levchenko of Ukraine also is expected to be in the medal hunt after finishing fourth at the 2019 world championships. Kamila Licwinko of Poland and Karyna Demidik of Belarus also are medal contenders.

“I’m very excited about the competition,” Vashti Cunningham said. “I don’t really have much to be excited for in the village, but I’m really looking towards the competition and not really nervous or overexcited or anything. But I’m ready. I’m in the mindset of just trusting God.”

The last American woman to win gold in the high jump was Louise Ritter in Seoul in 1988. Europeans have dominated the competition in the past seven Olympic Games.

Cunningham hopes to break that grip and find her way to the medal stand. She is brimming with confidence after her performance at Chula Vista. Video showed she cleared the bar with inches to spare.

That let Cunningham know she is capable of challenging the American record of 2.05 meters (6 feet, 8¾ inches) set by Chaunté Lowe by 2010.

“She’s becoming like the Andre Agassi, like Greg Maddux or myself who really have been brought up by the people in Las Vegas,” Randall Cunningham said. “We have really been trying to take it to the next level. And for Vashti, she’s on that road to becoming one of Las Vegas’ representatives.

“It’s just an open door that she has, and she’s handling it so well.”

Contact David Schoen at [email protected] or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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