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Vashti Cunningham discovered progress can slow in rarefied air. She still aims to jump higher.

Vashti Cunningham won the women's special high jump at the Drake Relays in 2018. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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Five years ago, as Vashti Cunningham reached the pinnacle event of high jumping at age 18, improvement came in unceasing bursts, and she could count on a new personal best every season. Since then, even as she has joined the world’s elite, Cunningham has discovered what happens when one of the gifts of youth starts to fade and progress becomes halting when it comes at all.

The current moment, then, isn’t lost on Cunningham. She will enter the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, which begin Friday in Eugene, Ore., coming off a breakthrough she hopes will double as a launchpad. In May at the Chula Vista Field Fest, Cunningham set a new personal best, leaping 6 feet 7½ inches, with room to spare, a height that made her the best in the world in 2021 and has been surpassed by just three American women in history.

For Cunningham, the jump validated her training, provided confidence in a recent technical tweak and invigorated her belief in how high she could go this summer at the Tokyo Games. Cunningham, who is coached by her father, former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, reached the 2016 Rio Olympics at 18. This year, barring a stunning result this week, she will make her second Olympics with the goal of winning gold.

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Cunningham has for years been the top American woman in the high jump, and her bronze at the 2019 world championships, along with her fourth-place world ranking, have stamped her as a medal threat. But she enters this summer intent not only on ranking among the best in the world but in claiming the global throne.

“I definitely want to take it to a world place, the world stage, and I want to stay number one in the world, and I do want to win the Olympics and be number one,” Cunningham said in an interview this month. “At the end of the season, I want to be the one with the highest height.”

Cunningham has been headed toward the world’s elite since her high school days, but in recent years she had been pushing up against her ceiling. She jumped 1.96 meters (6-5) in 2015, then nudged her personal best to 1.97 (6-5½) and 1.99 (6-6¼) in the next two years. In 2018, she didn’t surpass 1.96 meters (6-5). She reached 2 meters (6-6¾) in competition for the first time in 2019. Cunningham was still one of the best in the world, but her slowed progress left her feeling stifled.

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It was, in part, by design. Randall’s training has prioritized her long-term health and mental well-being over immediate results. During practices, to preserve her body, they lean toward drills that do not necessitate leaping. She competes just a handful of times per year and often skips Diamond League events.

“I don’t try to hit the ceiling every single time,” Randall said. “She’s my daughter. There’s not only a concern for her as an athlete but a concern as a father.”

This season, Cunningham made a crucial change. She had improved her running form and strength, and her increased speed presented a problem. Though she leaped with more power, she would often hit the bar on the way up. She experimented with finding a new mark to start her run from.

At Chula Vista, she felt abnormally good during warmups. She decided to move her mark back two feet from the usual starting point. It was where she felt most comfortable. Randall scribbled it in his notes.

“Once he saw my warmup jump, he was like, ‘Okay, I think you know what you’re talking about,’ ” Cunningham said.

Archives: Vasthi Cunningham is about to jump out of her father's shadow

The Cunninghams had not planned on any specific goal for the meet, mostly a tuneup for the trials. As the competition played out, Cunningham nailed a jump at 1.93 meters (6-4). For her next turn, event organizers had placed the bar at 2.02 (6-7½). Cunningham had planned to ask them to put it at 2.01 (6-7⅛). She stared at the bar.

This doesn’t really look that high, she thought.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever attempted 2.02 — maybe I have, but I don’t remember it,” Cunningham said. “So when I looked at it, I was kind of surprised, too, that it didn’t look that high. That’s why I walked away pretty quick. I was like, ‘I’m not going to look at it any longer.’ ”

So she would try for her personal best — about a decimeter higher than her previous attempt that day.

“It’s like one of the most abnormal things you could do,” Randall said. “But if you saw her jump at 1.93, then you’d say put the bar at 2.05.”

Vashti didn’t even touch the bar. She estimates she cleared with about four inches underneath her back. She had broken her personal best by more than three-quarters of an inch, a significant boost, with reason to believe more will come.

“It’s like a very comforting thing because when I was in high school, I was used to PR’ing two inches every season,” Cunningham said. “I would not finish the season without PR’ing. It’s kind of just like mentally draining because you want to do better every single season. So it really, really just feels just really good to know that I have more in me.”

Randall did track in high school before knee problems forced him to focus on football. (Spoiler: It worked out.) His personal best high jump was 6-10. A reporter pointed out to him that his daughter had come within about 2½ inches. “You’re getting all up in my business,” Randall replied, laughing.

Joking aside, Randall expects Vashti to leap past him eventually, which would put her in heady territory. The world record is 2.09 meters (6-10), which Bulgaria’s Stefka Kostadinova has held since 1987. If Cunningham cleared 2.02 by a few inches, it would put her in range of a hallowed mark.

“She’s right there,” Randall said. “I truly believe she could set the world record. I truly believe that. After that jump, I said to myself: ‘She went over 2.02 by maybe four, five inches. That’s three inches. That’s right there at the world record.’ I believe that Vashti on the right day could set the world record.”

Vashti did not mention the world record specifically. But after the new personal best in Chula Vista, she said she could see “something else happening.” The long-sought improvement sparked her confidence and only made her believe more could be on the way.

“I can definitely see myself going higher,” Cunningham said.