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Las Vegas’ Vashti Cunningham’s Olympic dreams on verge of reality

In one weekend, Vashti Cunningham went from a contender to make the U.S. Olympic team to America’s best hope for a medal in the women’s high jump this summer in Brazil.

“I kind of see it clearly in front of me,” Cunningham said, “and I would like to keep training hard for it and keep doing what I need to do to be on the team.”

The track and field community has been buzzing since Cunningham, an 18-year-old senior at Bishop Gorman High School, turned in a record-breaking, world-leading performance Saturday at the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon.

Cunningham’s winning indoor clearance of 6 feet, 6¼ inches (1.99 meters) would have placed fifth at the 2012 Olympics, and it took down several records:

— The world junior indoor record.

— The U.S. junior record.

— Her own national high school record.

The 6-foot-1-inch daughter of former UNLV and NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham now faces the decision of whether to turn professional as she prepares for the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 1 to 10 in Eugene, Oregon.

“There’s people who’ve put in calls to us to endorse different products and things like that now,” said Randall Cunningham, the head football coach at Silverado High School. “So, she’s at the stage where she’s trying to figure out if she wants to turn pro or not. If she decides that she wants to accept a contract, then at that point, she’s going to have to basically negate the rest of her high school and college career.”

Randall Cunningham said Monday evening his daughter has developed a friendship with Chaunte Lowe, the American record holder in the high jump, and the two competitors have discussed the advantages and disadvantages of turning pro.

As of now, Vashti Cunningham plans to compete during the high school season and is not in a rush to decide her future before the Olympic Trials. She has narrowed her college choices to Georgia, Oregon and Southern California, and if she chooses not to turn pro, the first day Cunningham can sign a national letter of intent is April 13.

“I think that it would be better for me to go pro because of the level that I’m kind of at right now,” Vashti Cunningham said. “But a big part of me would love to go to college and be on my own a little bit, going to school and stuff like that.”

Cunningham, who didn’t have a qualifying mark for the IAAF World Indoor Championships before the March 7 deadline, on Monday received an invitation to this weekend’s event, also in Portland, Oregon, making her the youngest high jump finalist ever at the World Indoors.

The high jump competition starts at 1 p.m. Sunday and could shape up as a battle between the teenager and 36-year-old European champion Ruth Beitia of Spain.

“After I went into volleyball and everything, I felt like I didn’t know how I was going to do because I hadn’t been doing it in a while,” Vashti Cunningham said. “To know that I am doing OK helps my confidence out a lot.”

After the World Indoors, Vashti Cunningham is scheduled to compete next month at the Arcadia Invitational and Mt. SAC Relays, two high school meets in California.

Randall Cunningham, who also is Vashti’s coach, added that meets such as the Penn Relays, Drake Relays and Texas Relays now are a possibility, as well.

“I just want her to focus on school and her jumping,” Randall Cunningham said. “Her hopes are to go to the Olympic Trials, make it to the Olympics. Her desire is to be on the medal stand, she’ll tell you that herself, but she wants to take first things first.”

Contact reporter David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidSchoenLVRJ

Top 10 high jumps in the world this year

1. Vashti Cunningham, United States, 6-6¼

2. (tie), Ruth Beitia, Spain, 6-5¾

Akela Jones, Barbados, 6-5¾

4. (tie), Airine Palsyte, Lithuania, 6-5½

Kamila Licwinko, Poland, 6-5½

6. (tie), Blanka Vlasic, Croatia, 6-4¾

Cunningham, 6-4¾

Chaunte Lowe, United States, 6-4¾

Levern Spencer, Saint Lucia, 6-4¾

Beitia, 6-4¾

Source: IAAF.org

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