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Vashti Cunningham, daughter of NFL legend, makes a leap of faith at Tokyo Olympics

Vashti Cunningham
Vashti Cunningham at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon, on June 20, 2021. Charlie Riedel / AP

Vashti Cunningham was determined to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She was 18, competing in the high jump, and eager to live up to the expectations of her last name, which is synonymous with athletic achievement. Her father and coach, Randall, is an NFL legend known for revolutionizing the quarterback position.

Vashti took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then tried to focus on one thing: a 4-pound, white bar — the only thing that stood between her and a shot at earning a medal. But she didn't clear the bar, resulting in a 13th-place finish. Vashti left wanting to quit the sport, and as her teammate embraced her, she broke into tears.

"I'm not somebody who cries in public," Vashti told CBS News. "I'm also not somebody that necessarily likes to be comforted… I have been so used to winning and winning and winning, I am now getting hugged because I had just lost. It was something I distinctly remembered, never wanting to happen again."

This summer, Vashti, who is now 23, qualified for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Her return is a chance at redemption after falling short in 2016, and an opportunity to show the world she's more than a former NFL great's daughter.

Vashti was born in Las Vegas on January 18, 1998, and grew up in a home full of athletes. She'd often gamble (and lose) her mother's money, thinking she could outsprint her brother and his friends. "She always thought she could beat the boys," said her brother, Randall II. "She was telling kids who were five years older she wanted to race them."

But by high school, Vashti began turning heads in the high jump competition and set a national high school record her junior year, jumping 6 feet, 4.5 inches. 

Most high school athletes practice jumping over the bar at around 5 feet, 2 inches. But her father challenged her to clear 5 feet, 10 inches. "People would go like, 'Why are you bringing her in so high?' I said, 'Because our goal isn't to win a state championship. Our goal is to be a professional record holder,'" he said. 

In 2016, at the end of her senior year, Vashti turned pro, and just months later, became the youngest track and field athlete to qualify for the Olympics since 1980. But the loss in Rio caused Vashti to struggle with her faith and the expectations of living up to her father. Every week, she attended church in Vegas with her brother, never giving up on her relationship with God. Three years later, as she prepared for the World Championships in Doha, she heard a sermon that helped restore her confidence.

"I was literally able to push through all of the things I was going through to the back of my mind and realize the opportunity that was in front of me and not limit myself or what God could do through me," she said. At the World Championships, everything clicked. She finished in third place, helping her feel a renewed sense of purpose and a stronger connection with God.

Vashti Cunningham
Vashti Cunningham in Doha, Qatar on September 30, 2019. Christian Petersen / Getty

Vashti admitted that growing up under the shadow of her father was difficult. Her father played quarterback for 17 seasons in the NFL, playing on the Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Baltimore Ravens. By the time she was born, his career was winding down. He began coaching his daughter to be a trailblazing athlete just like himself, a few years later. 

Randall, who played college ball at UNLV, is often credited as one of the first players to modernize the quarterback position. A prolific passer and runner, Randall made four Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams along with a Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1992. He credits his longevity in the league to his weight training program — a regimen he adjusted before passing onto his daughter as a teenager. 

"In high school, we did upper body on Mondays and Wednesdays, then the lower body on Tuesday and Thursdays,'" Randall said. "That's pretty much what I started with her once she was a certain age and with just light, light, weights." 

Like her father, Vashti admitted to having a fiery personality and said this often caused them to butt heads. She said there were times where she just wanted Randall to be her father, instead of her coach. "I think being a dad and having your oldest daughter tell you things, I'm sure it would be strange," Vashti said. "He would tell me you've been here 20 years and I've been here 50 years."

Two years ago, Vashti said they began to see eye to eye and their relationship improved. She credits becoming more mature and getting her own place. She now refers to herself as her father's "mini-me" because of their similarities. "The way he talks and acts, I see myself doing the same thing sometimes," Vashti said. "My best friend trains with me and is always like you and your dad are so much alike."

Randall said he's proud of her growth. "I'm really happy because she is maturing and it's really good to see her maturing in her walk with God," he said." I mean her understanding of handling everything that is coming her way. I'm telling you at 23 years old — you gotta be kidding me." 

Randall and Vashti Cunningham
Randall and Vashti Cunningham.  Handouts

If you get to know Vashti, you'll realize she's much more than a track star. She has a passion for art and fashion, digging for designer clothing in thrift stores and wearing her discoveries with pride. Her unique style even caught the eye of a Women's Wear Daily, where she graced the magazines' cover in 2018. She has loved photography since seventh grade and shares her favorite pictures on Instagram, one day hoping to become a photographer for National Geographic. 

"I like to stay authentic to myself," Vashti said. "I don't just want to fit a role. I'm an athlete, but I'm not trying to sit here and only reach athletes." 

As she heads to the Olympics, Vashti doesn't feel the pressure from her family to get a medal. They support her no matter the outcome. If she does medal, it's proof that she can bounce back after hitting her lowest point. "It would mean that I am truly a vessel of God," she said. "And that I should remain confident and keep doing the things I am doing."

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