TOKYO — There are not a lot of boxes left for Vashti Cunningham to check in the high jump.
Just 23, she has won national championships and an indoor world title. An Olympic medal, preferably gold, is just about all that is left for the athlete whose parents’ feats might help explain her jumping acumen.
Her father and coach, Randall, the former N.F.L. quarterback who played mostly with the Philadelphia Eagles, used to leap over very large offensive and defensive lineman to get into the end zone. Her mother was a ballerina with the Dance Theater of Harlem, a profession that requires a good set of springs.
Maybe it’s little surprise their daughter is a world class high jumper. Cunningham finished 13th at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 when she was still a teenager, just five months after she won the world indoor high jump title. At the World Athletics championships in Doha, Qatar, two years ago, she finished third.
To make the top step of the podium in Tokyo, Cunningham and her father have devised an unconventional strategy — she does not practice jumping very much at all. How little does Cunningham jump in training? As seldom as one day every three weeks, and no more than 10 times on the jumping day. Instead of jumping, she focuses on strength and speed training and technique.
“I put my trust in God and in the weight room,” Cunningham said in an interview earlier this year.
The strategic shift was born somewhat out of necessity. Before the 2019 season, Cunningham had surgery to remove a bone spur from her ankle. After she recovered, going over the bar whenever she wanted was no longer an option. Her father insisted the key to her success involved jumping less and less. But one jumping day every three weeks?
That required a leap of faith that speaks to an ever-evolving and not always smooth, multifaceted relationship between Cunningham and her father. At any moment on any day, he wears the hat of dad, coach or preacher — Randall Cunningham is the senior pastor at Remnant Ministries church in Las Vegas.
It’s a lot of time with her father, especially for a 23-year-old woman. Trusting the path set for her by her father, who competed in the high jump in high school and went as high as 6-foot-10, has had its moments.
Vashti Cunningham played just about every sport she could growing up — flag football, volleyball, soccer and basketball, in addition to track.
As she entered high school she wanted to be a three-sport athlete. Her father told her to pick two. She wanted to play basketball.
She played point guard and loved having the ball in her hands. But a talented track athlete she and her father knew had gotten hurt playing basketball. With his encouragement, she chose volleyball to go along with track, which was her best sport.
By her senior year of high school, Cunningham was the best female high jumper in the country. She was also very good at volleyball and was recruited by the University of Georgia and the University of Southern California for that sport.
She desperately wanted to leave Las Vegas and be a college student. She had just become the world indoor high jump champion. Sponsorship offers were beginning to arrive.
Randall Cunningham asked his daughter if she wanted to make money or be a broke college student. She chose what she thought was the obvious answer.
Initially, things did not go so well. Her father wanted her home by 9 p.m. every day, which did not sit well with an 18-year-old whose friends had a lot more freedom. At home, he sometimes would pull her in front of a screen to watch high jump videos until late into the night.
“It got tough, all the one-on-one time, doing all the hard work with no teammates and no one to joke around with,” Vashti Cunningham said. “It just got very serious. It became the center of everything in my life. It became more of a job.”
The happy medium arrived after a year, when Vashti Cunningham got her own apartment about a 20-minute drive from her parents, and about 10 minutes away from the private gym and practice facility her father had built for her and the handful of athletes he coaches, including her older brother, who did not make the Olympic team.
Randall Cunningham said there were moments after Vashti passed on college — and still are today — when she would look at him and say, “I just want you to be my dad today.” He did, which helped convince her that he had her best interests at heart.
But then came the bone spur surgery, the rehab and a training regimen that did not involve much jumping at all. That is not a small ask in an event where confidence — the ability to look at a bar more than a half-foot above your head and say, ‘I can get my entire body over that,’ — can play a big role. With so much time between practice jumps, would the muscle memory still be there when competitions arrived?
That all depends on which school of training you subscribe to.
Cliff Rovelto, the high jump expert who coaches at Kansas State University and has consulted with Cunningham, said the thinking on how often a young elite athlete should jump is “all over the map.” Rovelto tends to be in the less-is-more camp that emphasizes weight training, technique and sprinting rather than flying over the bar several days a week.
“If you are going to compete at a high level you’ve got to train,” Rovelto said. “When you do more jumping, the body breaks down because the cumulative effect wears on you.” He said a jumping session every two weeks is common among coaches who think like he does.
Randall Cunningham, though, has taken it a step further.
At first, the schedule terrified her. But then she went to a competition and realized how fresh and healthy she felt. Her body still knew what to do.
She makes up for the days and weeks without jumping by sitting quietly at night and visualizing herself in competition, rising up and over the bar and descending onto the crash mat.
It seems to be working. Earlier this year she set a personal best of 6 feet 7½ inches. Her competition begins Thursday morning in Tokyo with the finals set for Saturday.
Dwight Stones, the two-time Olympic medalist in the high jump, said the Cunninghams appear to have figured out how to adjust Vashti’s curving approach to the bar so she minimizes her loss of momentum.
“I think he is the greatest athlete to ever play his position, and he high jumped at a damn good level. But you don’t have to be a great technician to be a great jumper, and usually when someone like that coaches at this level it’s a disaster,” Stones said of Randall Cunningham. And yet they knew they had an issue with the run-up and they figured it out.”