Women’s high jump prodigy Vashti Cunningham admits she doesn’t really like to be the center of attention.
But, like it or not, this 18-year-old high school student from Las Vegas, is bound to get a lot of attention this week at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.
That’s what happens when you establish new high school, U.S. and world junior records by leaping over a bar 6 feet, 6 ¼ inches off the ground in front of an enthusiastic, packed house at the Oregon Convention Center during the USATF Indoor Championships. Not to mention setting the world-leading mark in the high jump for 2016, or becoming number four on the all-time U.S. list.
Cunningham attends Bishop Gorman High School in Summerlin, Nevada, and is coached by her father, Randall, who starred at UNLV and was a first-team All-Pro quarterback in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings.
No secret in the world of track and field since she jumped 6 ¼ as as a high school freshman, Cunningham’s poise and quiet confidence were evident as she spoke to reporters after her record-setting jumps at the U.S. Indoor Championships.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Cunningham told FloTrack. “I knew I had that in me and this gives me a lot of confidence, that I’m now up there maintaining with all these girls.
"I don’t feel the pressure," she added. "My dad has taught me to keep my eyes set on what I need to do, and not pay attention to everyone else. That’s what I’ve been trying to do lately."
Though her previous best 2016 mark of 6-4 ¾ was a quarter-inch shy of the qualifying mark for the IAAF World Indoor Championships, and the U.S. Indoor mark was made after the qualifying period ended, Cunningham received a special invitation from the IAAF to compete this week. Asked about her goal in her first major senior international competition, Cunningham didn’t hesitate in giving a direct answer.
"The goal for me is 6-7. Or 6-8. Whatever will win the competition."
As noted by Phil Minshull, in his preview of the women’s high jump on the IAAF website, one of Cunningham’s leading competitors at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 will be 36-year-old Ruth Beitia of Spain, who jumped 6-6 at the recent Spanish National Championships. After taking the bronze at the last World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, Beitia will be seeking to break her own record as the oldest woman to earn a high jump medal in a world championships.
When the high jump unfolds on Sunday at 1 pm, it should be a captivating show. Cunningham, though less than half Beitia’s age and short of experience on the world stage, seems to have an emotional maturity far exceeding her years, along with the essential ability to focus in the moment.
And she says she loves jumping in the Oregon Convention Center, and even claims to enjoy the infamous Oregon weather.
"My day was really good today," Cunningham said after Saturday’s competition. "I love the rain so the weather had me in a good mood. The warm-up area was really nice so I got to do everything I wanted to and went into the competition warm and ready."
Whatever may happen this Sunday, it is unlikely to affect Cunningham’s focus on her goal to compete in the Rio Olympics this summer – or her remaining weeks of high school, as she looks forward to her prom on April 9 and her senior trip to Disneyland.
"Hopefully, (high school) will be the same as when I left. I don’t really like a lot of attention on me."