(Bridget Bennett for NPR)
It’s already been a big year for high jumper Vashti Cunningham, and it could soon get even bigger. In March, the high school senior from Las Vegas set a world junior record and decided to forego college competition and turn pro.
Now she’s graduated and has her sights set on the Summer Olympics in Brazil, just over a month away.
Here are a few numbers to keep in mind:
6-foot-1: her height.
6-foot-6 1/4 (1.99 meters): her world junior record, which captured the U.S. indoor championship in March. She won the world indoor title a week later, with a jump of 6-foot-5.
18 years: her age.
When Vashti high jumps, it’s “kinda like this long-limbed gazelle jumping over a bar,” says her father and coach, the former NFL star quarterback Randall Cunningham, a former high jumper himself.
Vashti is gifted with some pretty spectacular DNA. She can likely chalk up her strength, speed and agility to her father. Her graceful form and flexibility come from her mother, Felicity DeJager Cunningham, a former ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem.
And her brother Randall Cunningham Jr., who is two years older, is also a talented high jumper. As a sophomore at USC, he recently won the NCAA outdoor championship with a leap of 7-foot-4 1/2 (2.25 meters) and is also a candidate to make the Olympic team.
Both parents recall a young Vashti who was constantly in motion. “She would jump from the roof [onto] the trampoline and try to land on the wall,” recalls her mother. Vashti was “always running and jumping and flipping and cartwheels and all that,” adds her father.
Asked if there’s any downside to having her father for a coach, Vashti pauses before answering.
“I used to wonder why I couldn’t be going out to parties or why I couldn’t be hanging out with my friends late at night, and then it kinda just clicks in my head when he keeps explaining it to me: ‘You’re not at the same level as some of these kids, and you have to act like a pro now. You have something to do. Now go get your business done,’” she said.
The day after she won the world indoor championship in March, Vashti Cunningham decided to skip college track and field and turn professional, signing a major endorsement deal with Nike. It’s a “very lucrative” deal, according to her father, who considers this a golden moment for Vashti.
With prize money, he says, in one year “she could probably make close to a quarter of a million, or $500,000, if she wants to. And then just with endorsements, she could make up to a million bucks. Lord willing, she goes and wins the Olympics, she could easily make $500- to $800,000. She sets a world record, she could become a multi-millionaire.”
These are all big ifs. She hasn’t made the Olympic team yet, though she’s a strong favorite. The finals for the women’s high jump are set for this Sunday in Eugene, Ore.
Still, the Nike deal came with a bonanza of Nike products: dozens of pairs of shoes, uniforms, practice gear, backpacks, you name it.
“It was like 12 or 16 boxes one day when I came home from school,” Vashti remembers with a grin.
The tradeoff of turning pro is that she’s can’t compete as a college athlete. And for now, with her attention turned to the Olympics, college is on hold.
Vashti says, somewhat ruefully, “I wanted to go to college so bad,” with a plan to study photography.
But her father says they researched how much a photographer might make coming out of college: about $45,000 a year.
“I said, Vashti, you can make $45,000 in eight days,” Randall recalls.
Vashti adds, “it was kind of just me seeing that the door was open and just going through it full speed.”
With the decision to go pro and the Olympics coming up, that adds up to a lot of pressure on an 18-year-old.
Her mother, Felicity, does worry about that. “As a mom that would be my concern,” she says, “that she’s able to do what is demanded of her and not burn out; that being a professional doesn’t take the joy out of her jumping.”
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