Long before Vashti Cunningham created excitement of her own in her ascent to becoming the nation’s No. 1 high jumper and a contender for an Olympic gold medal, she heard stories about her father and the thrilling and daring deeds he performed as the quarterback for the Eagles.
Randall Cunningham played 11 seasons in Philadelphia before being released, gave up football for a season and returned to finish a 16-year career with Minnesota, Dallas and Baltimore. But it was stories about the Eagles’ portion of his career that fascinated Vashti, who wasn’t even born during that time.
“It’s really cool to me because the Eagles are my favorite team,” she said in a May interview with a Los Angeles television station.
“I take so much pride in him being on that team and being the quarterback that he was for that team. I just love it when people come up to me and tell me they’re from Philly and that they watched me high jump and they knew my Dad. That just makes my heart warm.
“I’m from Philly in my head. I know I’m not from Philly but I want to be a little bit because of the Eagles, they’re my squad.”
Now 58, Randall Cunningham has been coaching his 23-year-old daughter since she took up high jumping as a fourth-grader. He will be by her side in Tokyo when the Olympic high jump competition begins Wednesday, one that begins with Vashti holding the No. 2 mark in the world in 2021, a leap of 6 feet, 7 ½ inches.
She has compiled a sensational career since reaching the 2016 Olympic finals in Rio, where she finished 13th, just weeks after her high school graduation. Since them, she has won nine USA Track and Field indoor and outdoor championships, plus the 2016 world indoor championship. Her last U.S. title came at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials – with her father watching in person – on Father’s Day.
And after years of being known as “Randall Cunningham’s daughter,” she likes the fact she is recognized more as Vashti.
“A lot of people know who he is everywhere we go,” she said. “So automatically I was getting looked at as Randall Cunningham’s daughter and that was kind of where my support started. But it changed when I started to do my own thing, and I was Vashti Cunningham and not Randall Cunningham’s daughter with no name.”
She calls her father her “coach, Dad and pastor” – he is an ordained minister who is in his second season as team chaplain for the Raiders in the family’s hometown of Las Vegas. But the dynamic with being a coach and a father can be a little tricky sometimes, as she told former CBS reporter Lesley Visser on her show, “We Need to Talk.”
“We have come to some moments where I had to tell my Dad, ‘Well, OK, I’m with you for practice for about two hours in the day, and then when you come home after work and you want to talk about track,’ ” Vashti Cunningham said. “I’m just like, ‘OK, sometimes I need to talk to my Dad.’
“Sometimes we need to move track to the side and we need to have family conversations, father-daughter conversations. I think that in the beginning, it was definitely a huge role he played as my coach and I really, really applaud him for being able to take the hat off and be just my Dad sometimes.”
Randall Cunningham calls his training methods for Vashti “unorthodox.” It involves less actual jumping and more weight lifting – he said his tall 120-pound daughter can squat between 360 and 400 pounds – along with rest and nutrition.
High jumping comes naturally to the Cunningham family. Randall took part in the sport in high school. His son, Randall II, won back-to-back NCAA high jump championships at Southern California. But Vashti has received the most attention for what she has achieved.
Vashti reached the two-meter mark (6-6 ¾), something she called “a barrier for all women jumpers,” in 2019 at a meet in Palo Alto, Calif., and reached that height again to win a bronze medal at the 2019 World Track and Field Championship. Her 2.02-meter mark (6-7 ¾) in May was No. 1 in the world this year until Yaroslava Makuchikh of Ukraine jumped 2.03 (6-8) on July 4.
She may need another two-meter jump to gain a medal in Tokyo. But she’s ready to jump well and enjoy herself.
“The Olympics is different than any other competition,” she said. “You’re there with the top athlete in every sport and I don’t even think about it as just track going into it. I’m sitting here thinking about everybody, like ‘Wow, you’re amazing at what you do and we’re at the same place.’ So that kind of makes me happy and it gives me a little bit more drive to just be a part of something this big.”