From the time she was a teenage prodigy at Bishop Gorman High School, Vashti Cunningham has faced high expectations.
She is the daughter of a former star NFL and UNLV quarterback and has long been viewed as America’s best hope to win the gold medal in the high jump.
On Saturday in Tokyo, she’ll be the country’s only hope. Cunningham will be among 14 competitors trying to at least reach the medals podium. The event begins at 3:35 a.m. Las Vegas time.
“To get on the stand is not as easy as people think, but we believe it’s possible,” said Randall Cunningham, her dad and coach. “It would mean a lot.”
Randall Cunningham said rain was in the forecast, but told his daughter long before arriving in Japan that she needed to prepare for wet conditions. They also are working at night to compensate for the later event start; the final begins at 7:35 p.m. local time.
This is the second Olympics appearance for Cunningham. She was 13th at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, where Cunningham was the youngest American athlete to qualify in track and field at the Olympics since 1980.
Now five years later at 23, she is a more seasoned athlete and has the results to back it up. Cunningham jumped 6 feet, 6¾ inches to win the American Track League event in February in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Then in May in Chula Vista, California, she posted a career best 6-7½. That leap was the second best in the world this year, behind only Ukraine’s Yaroslava Mahuchikh’s 6-9.
Cunningham is ranked fourth in the world.
“I don’t know if she’s peaking,” Randall Cunningham said. “We’re trying to get to that place.”
On Thursday Tokyo time, Cunningham made qualifying a little more dramatic than she would have preferred. She missed on her first two attempts at the automatic qualifying height of 6-5, but easily cleared on her third and final try.
“A lot of the girls that were doing good during the year weren’t able to make it through the qualifying round,” Randall Cunningham said. “So very happy that she was able to get there.”