Andy Nelson / The Register-Guard via AP
Monday, March 28, 2016 | 2 a.m.
A proud father accustomed to the spotlight now sits back watching his daughter attract attention.
Vashti Cunningham, daughter of Randall Cunningham, the former UNLV and NFL quarterback, is a world-champion high jumper heading to the Summer Olympics.
By the numbers
• 7 feet, 4 1/4 inches: Career-best jump for Randall Cunningham II, a sophomore on the Southern California track and field team
• 6 feet, 9 inches: Olympic women’s high jump record set by Russia’s Yelena Slesarenko (2004 Athens Olympics)
• 6 feet, 8 3/4 inches: Gold medal jump by Russia’s Anna Chicherova (2012 London Olympics)
• 6 feet, 7 3/4 inches: Silver medal jump by American Brigetta Barrett (2012 London Olympics)
• 6 feet, 6 1/4 inches: Cunningham’s jump to win the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships, the top mark by any female in the world this year
• 5 feet, 5 3/4 inches: Gold medal jump and former world record set by American Jean Shiley (1932 Los Angeles Olympics)
Randall Cunningham recently stood in the Oregon Convention Center, where 18-year-old Vashti conquered her tallest height so far, and spoke about watching strangers approach his daughter. It’s nice to enjoy watching from the sidelines rather than sit center stage, Randall said.
Vashti, on the other hand, hasn’t completely adjusted to the shift.
“I like the attention somewhat, not really a lot,” Vashti said, speaking more quietly with each word. “I still prefer it to be on him.”
But thanks to the Bishop Gorman High senior’s performances, athleticism and new Nike deal, Vashti Cunningham is going to keep receiving more of that attention in her pursuit of gold at this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In back-to-back March weekends in Portland, Ore., Vashti won the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships high jump title with a leap of 6 feet, 6 1/4 inches — the top mark by any female in the world this year — then followed it up at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Indoor Championships by clearing 6-5 to become the youngest woman to win an IAAF indoor title.
A day later at Las Vegas’ Remnant Ministries, Vashti sat between her parents and announced she would turn pro, signing what Randall called a very lucrative deal with Nike, although he wouldn’t disclose terms. Randall, who is Vashti’s coach, said there are other deals coming, too, because there are extra endorsements available for track athletes in Olympic years.
“She’s going to do very well,” Randall joked. “We might kick her out of the house soon.”
Vashti said she was looking forward to a little break, including a trip to California, before beginning her professional career in earnest.
While it might seem intimidating to move from competing against girls her own age to women, Vashti has found a lot she likes about it. Competitors haven’t been overly hostile, she said, and in high jump, you compete alone. No one else can drag her down.
And for 6-foot-1 Cunningham, competing with the pros has meant she fits in a bit more.
“I was actually happy that they were all taller than me, because usually I’m the tallest one in the competition,” Vashti said.
Randall has been in charge of fielding incoming offers and negotiating, which was how both daughter and father wanted it.
Vashti is excited about turning pro but wants to enjoy her high school experience as much as possible while transitioning into what’s now a career.
“The maturity that she has has been rapidly growing,” Randall said. “She’s at a place in her life right now where she knows she’s learning the different nuances of becoming a pro, the business aspect of it, the negotiating, all the fans. When the pressure comes, and there’s a lot on her … she’s able to deal with that.”
Vashti will continue to have plenty of support, too. Her older brother, USC sophomore high jumper Randall Jr., surprised Vashti at the worlds in Oregon, and her mom, Felicity, said the family would travel to as many events as possible.
The U.S. Olympic Team trials are June 1-10 in Eugene, Ore. While Cunningham is a favorite not only to make the team but to compete for a medal in Rio, it’s still a step-by-step process through which she must work.
Most people would be thrilled to become a world champion at 18, Vashti had a different goal in mind.
“I was a little disappointed because I wanted to jump higher,” she said.