Vashti Cunningham isn’t a rookie high jumper anymore. She made her Olympic debut at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she won an indoor gold medal in 2016 and silver in 2018, and in 2019, she took home a bronze medal at the World Championships in Doha.
“Going into Olympic trials and going into the Olympics, I’m feeling probably the best that I’ve felt in the past two years,” says the Red Bull-sponsored athlete. Even with the 2020 track and field season being canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty of whether or not the Olympics would take place, Cunningham’s father and coach, Randall Cunningham, a retired NFL All-Pro quarterback, made sure that in the event of a competition, Cunningham and her training partners would be prepared to perform.
Her training is unconventional for a high jumper; she lifts four days a week and jumps once a month. “We’re really in the gym every single day making sure that we’re strong enough to last through a competition and that we can use power when we’re jumping,” she says.
And although she didn’t get to compete much in 2020, she had more time to focus on her creative interest like fashion and styling shoots. Now, ahead of the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials, Cunningham says she grateful to have been able to compete in meets this season. “It’s just a very, very familiar feeling that we finally get to have, and I just feel like mentally I’m at the place that I need to be and physically.”
At a level where everyone is talented, mental training can be the difference between making it on the podium or not. “I was 18 when I went to the last Olympics and now I’m 23. And so I feel like a lot of it has been just growing and getting older and maturing. And getting a stronger relationship with God has been a big part of it for me because when I was young, I would just let things affect me and I wasn’t really super tapped in. But now that I’ve gotten older and understood how important it is, just giving it more of myself, I’ve seen the results.”
The most obvious place the results have translated to is her training. Cunningham says she’s training better, she’s been able to do heavier reps than ever before when lifting, and she’s jumping better in track meets and is more consistent. “I’ve just started to see how to be consistent and also the things that I need to have around me in my seasons and the things that I don’t need to have around.” It’s been a journey, Cunningham says, explaining that all she can do is take things day by day and learn from each experience.
Returning to competition, Cunnigham feels refreshed, grounded, and confident in who she is and where she’s at in this phase of life. She also feels more like herself these days and as she heads to trials and competes for a spot on the team. “I definitely want to remind myself that God is 100 percent on my side the whole time that I’m competing and just really remind myself why I’m there. And remember what I’m supposed to do in the end, which is ultimately just give the glory back to God.”