LAS VEGAS — Standing in his kitchen, Randall Cunningham poured whey-protein powder, 2 percent milk and Jif peanut butter into a blender and flicked on the appliance. “Vashti!” he shouted over the whirring blades. He turned to his wife, Felicity, and asked in the playfully restless manner of an 18-year-old girl’s father, “Do I have to holler every day to get her to come down here?”
Into the room then walked Vashti Cunningham, wearing black tights and a gray Nevada Gazelles track club T-shirt. As she sipped the shake, Randall led her into a carpeted, 25-by-25-foot room packed with workout equipment, weight machines and, along the walls, trappings of this singular family’s suburban life: a spare refrigerator, luggage, starting blocks, a Baltimore Ravens duffel bag, cardboard boxes, Christmas decorations, a water heater and a plush doll of Cunningham in an Eagles uniform and helmet. Vashti squeezed her 6-foot frame and elastic limbs into a leg-press machine.
“All righty then,” Randall told Vashti. “Let’s get it. Get the focus, all right?”
Vashti nodded. For the next three hours, she honed in on a grueling workout designed by her father. Beyond that, her focus would be stretched in so many directions. Vashti is a world-class talent yet to exit adolescence. Two years ago, she was among the best high school high jumpers in Nevada. Now she is an American high school record holder, an Olympic hopeful weighing whether to compete as a collegian or professional.
“It still hasn’t clicked in my head about how good I am right now,” she said.
The daughter of a freakishly athletic football player and a South African ballerina, Vashti won a genetic jackpot. She’s lithe and strong, rangy but graceful. Her legs are so long that when she sits on the floor her knees come even with her forehead. She inherited Randall’s competitive verve; she likes to watch his old game film because “he had, like, a personality when he played,” she said. “We kind of have the same thing.”
Cunningham, one of the most electric quarterbacks in NFL history, trains his daughter in the high jump. Her father’s training, her parents’ genes and her own talent have made Vashti a precocious star, on the cusp of greatness and navigating all that comes next. On Saturday in Portland, Ore., she won the USA Track & Field indoor championship with a jump of 6 feet 61/4 inches, surpassing her personal best by 11/4 inches and breaking her own high school record. At 18, a decade before a high jumper’s typical peak, it would take an injury or a significant upset for Vashti not to qualify for August’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics at the U.S. trials in July. For now, she is unknown to most of the sports world.
“Over the last year and a half, she is the best female high jumper in the country,” USA Track & Field high jump chair Dave Kerin said. “That includes former international medalists. She’s number one until somebody knocks her off. That’s outrageous at her age.
“People will talk about a great football player and call him once-in-a-decade. She is once-in-a-lifetime right now until the next one comes along. She’s literally beyond people we’ve come across in the history of the event. I don’t throw around faint praise.”
Randall Cunningham has lived a full, not easily defined post-football life. He is the pastor at Remnant Ministries, the church he started in 2004, and the head football coach at Silverado High. He devotes the majority of his time, though, to track and field and managing Vashti’s burgeoning career.
As he became a high school football star in Santa Barbara, Calif., Randall also competed in the high jump, spending hours teaching himself technique. Cunningham’s jumping career ended his senior year of high school when his right knee developed osteochondritis, a painful joint injury that caused his knee to bend sideways and required surgery. He recovered in time to play football at UNLV, launching an NFL career that lasted 16 seasons and included four Pro Bowl appearances.
When his son Randall II was born, “I wanted him to play football, follow in my footsteps,” he said.
He trained him in both football and the high jump, and after Randall II starred at quarterback for Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, garnering scholarship offers from LSU and Baylor, among others, he told his father, “I want to be the best high jumper in the world.” With his father’s blessing, he left football behind and chose to compete in the high jump at Southern Cal, where he became an all-American as a freshman.
While training Randall II in track, Cunningham always included Vashti, two years younger. When she was in fifth grade, Cunningham brought her to a track for the first time. She tossed off her flip-flops and sprinted the oval in bare feet.
Cunningham immediately saw potential in his daughter, a natural jumper who was always taller than other kids her age, even the boys. He researched techniques, studied videos and contacted experts. He borrowed training methods from his own career, favoring high intensity for short bursts.
“We kind of do unorthodox training,” Cunningham said. “I took what I’ve done all my life, and I took all the great things people had me do, and then I threw out the bad stuff. All the new technology is not necessarily the great stuff. All the new machines, they’re not necessarily the greatest things.”
By the start of last year, Vashti had become one of the best teenage jumpers in the country. Cunningham believes in grand goals, and he told Vashti she could break the American high school record of 6-4 during 2015. He promised to buy her a new car if she did.
Last April, Cunningham watched Vashti warm up at the Mount SAC Relays and estimated her clearing a 5-8 bar by nearly a foot. “Today is your day,” he told her. Cunningham saw her punch the air after a failed leap at 6-3, a rare outward show of anger. He instructed an official to move the bar up anyway, to 6-4
“What she’s done is amazing,” said Amy Acuff, a five-time Olympian who previously owned the high school mark. “It’s always incredible to see that talent at such a young age. I think everybody is looking at her evolution and can only imagine what the future might hold.”
On Aug. 1, Vashti entered the Pan-Am Juniors wanting to bump her personal record to 6-5. She missed two jumps beneath the mark, putting her down to her last chance. Cunningham insisted she raise the bar anyway. On her last chance, Vashti leaped over to claim gold and set a record.
“Show me a score sheet where an elite athlete is down to her last jump and raises the bar to a personal record and then clears, and I’ll give you all the money in my wallet,” said Kerin, the USATF chair. “It’s absolutely unheard of.”
After the jump, Vashti told Randall, “You owe me a Mercedes.”
She now drives a white S550, same as her father.
Earlier this year, Vashti competed at the New Mexico Classic against, among others, Chaunté Lowe, a 32-year-old three-time Olympian and the American record holder. It was a surreal moment for Vashti — for years, she and Randall had studied her jumps, with Randall pausing the film over and over to teach Vashti proper form. They met afterward.
“She told me she thinks I should go pro,” Vashti said.
Vashti has been thinking about the decision daily, mulling scholarship offers from Oregon, Georgia and Southern Cal against the rest of her life.
“Right now, I don’t know what I’m doing yet,” Vashti said. “I’m thinking about going pro. I’m thinking about college, too.” She sighed. “I’m just waiting.”
Vashti planned potentially to use the USATF indoor championships as a platform to turn professional, and her showing may have sealed her decision. Randall said he has fielded offers from potential endorsers that could stretch into six figures including incentives.
“All she needs to do is focus on jumping,” Randall said. “I’ll do my job as her father, and if it comes down to it we’ll have an attorney take a look at the paperwork. That’s where I’ve been in my own career. I did all my own things. I think over the next couple of weeks, there’s a great opportunity for her to turn pro.”
The buzz from Vashti’s success — and the unique arrangement of a former NFL star coaching her — has invited scrutiny. Dwight Stones, a former world record holder and an outspoken Olympic analyst for NBC, wondered why Vashti had not jumped at the world championships last year after qualifying. Instead, Vashti chose to compete at the Pan-Am Juniors because with Randall II about to turn 20, it was the last chance for them to compete on the same junior team. (Both won gold medals.) Stones thought Randall should have insisted she gain the experience at the highest level.
“I think it was a big opportunity missed,” Stones said. “He’s one of the greatest athletes to ever play in the NFL. I’m sure he thinks he is right most of the time. When you have limited information and experience, you need to go to experts and you need to find out what the best line of action is. I feel he might have made that decision in a vacuum.”
Kerin, for his part, dismissed the concerns and, in fact, credited Randall for how well he has positioned Vashti.
The results are impossible to question. Vashti’s technique does not suggest substandard instruction. The USATF invited her to a training center in Chula Vista, Calif., for a biomechanical analysis using a series of cameras, and the findings revealed both Randall’s astute feel for the high jump and Vashti’s natural ability. Her form, Kerin said, was better than 90 percent of the jumpers studied.
“Her mechanics are far beyond what we’d expect from a high school kid coached by their dad,” Kerin said.
Randall’s most significant success as a coach might be Vashti’s clean health and refreshing mental outlook. Other coaches could have pushed Vashti faster and perhaps squeezed an extra half-inch out of her personal best — but at a cost of risking injury and diminishing her potential years before her peak.
“I really applaud Randall for the thoughtfulness and the slow, methodical progression,” Kerin said.
Cunningham has excluded squats and other exercises that would force Vashti’s back to bear weight. He encouraged her to keep playing volleyball, preventing mental and physical burnout from track. He crafted a regimen with enough flexibility for her to complete homework assignments and hang out with friends.
“I want her to be a kid,” Cunningham said. “Because she’s my daughter, I’m going to look over her even more. Someone in college or another coach might be like, ‘You’re there right now. If we just do this, you’re going to be jumping higher than everybody else!’ She’s 18 years old. Let her get to that point. We’ll get there. We don’t have to go make her do things like she needs to do it right now.”
As she navigates entry into the life of an elite athlete, Vashti draws confidence from her father’s history with professional sports. “His knowledge makes it impossible for me to go into any situation blind,” Vashti said.
Her parents still call her “Ti-Ti,” a childhood nickname she will soon grow out of. She loves photography and fashion and plans on designing her own apparel line; her favorite parts about rising in the track world, she said, are the uniforms and the travel. She models on Instagram and would like to try it someday for real in New York, her favorite city she has visited.
Sitting next to her father on a picnic table next to the UNLV track after a workout last week, she outlined her first purchase if she turns pro: a pair of Yeezy 950s, boots designed by Kanye West and sold by adidas.
“See, that’s where Dad comes in,” Randall said, “because if this company comes” — he pointed at the logo of another shoe company on her shirt — “then those shoes are goners.”
Cunningham and Vashti remain father-and-daughter even when they are coach-and-jumper. On March 4 on the UNLV track, Cunningham walked over to her after she knocked the bar on a practice jump. “You have to put more emphasis on more power and more speed,” he said. “Okay?”
“Nice glasses,” she replied, poking fun at his cheap shades.
“Thank you,” Cunningham said. “7-Eleven specials.”
By that night, Vashti had completed a jumping workout and a weightlifting session in consecutive days — but her day wasn’t done. She had a party to attend across town, and her sister and two friends piled into her Mercedes. Cunningham closed the garage door, the Strip’s skyline visible in the distance against the dusk. His daughter backed out of the driveway and drove off, still just a kid, at least for a little while longer.