March 22, 2016 - 7:26 pm
There is something so simple about track and field when it comes to separating the elite from everyone else, the very good from the legendary. Something so straightforward.
It’s all about the marks.
Those of Vashti Cunningham speak for themselves.
World class is just that.
Her decision to turn professional this week, to begin accepting endorsements and sign with the most famous of Swooshes for jumping unaided over a horizontal bar placed at measured heights without dislodging it, is the only logical one for an athlete whose dream is to one day stand on the highest of Olympic platforms with a gold medal draped around her neck.
Cunningham signed her name to a contract with Nike on Monday, and in doing so the 18-year-old Bishop Gorman High senior continued what has been a serious trend lately that has seen some of the nation’s best female prep track stars choose the pro route over college track.
This is Cunningham’s best move, the smartest of leaps she has made.
She has burst, make that flown, onto the high jump scene in the past year, and once she won gold last weekend at the International Association of Athletics Federations World Indoors in Portland, Oregon, any chance of Cunningham deciding to compete for Oregon or Georgia or Southern California compared to those of UNLV making a men’s basketball coaching hire that will be unanimously praised.
1. She’s good enough.
Cunningham jumped 6 feet, 5 inches (1.96 meters) on Sunday and 6-6¼ (1.99 meters) on March 12. She might be the best America has right now. Chaunte Lowe, a three-time Olympian and American record holder, is 32 and ranked 35th in the world last year. Amy Acuff, a five-time Olympian, is 40 and ranked 50th.
2. Cunningham is incredibly marketable.
Here’s the thing about American track and field and money: There is no middle class. You have the very rich, such as Allyson Felix and Ashton Eaton and Justin Gatlin and Meb Keflezighi, ones who have shoe and apparel deals and their names on power bar wrappers, living lavishly off endorsements. Then you have everyone else, existing four to a room while eating Top Ramen three times a day. The majority are dirt poor.
Cunningham’s age and background, her father, Randall, being a former NFL quarterback and now member of the College Football Hall of Fame, her having a personality and intelligence and sophistication beyond her years, her prodigious talent, will play huge with TV executives and those suits offering endorsement contracts.
So will this: The best high jumpers in the world are Russian, names such as Anna Chicherova and Maria Kuchina, neither of whom competed in Portland. Nothing would engage sponsors more than an 18-year-old American competing on the globe’s grandest stage against such women, promoting the kind of East-West rivalry that fueled so many past Olympics and has again bubbled to the surface in recent years with the political bluster of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
3. Cunningham can medal in Rio.
Could even be a gold one.
She might have a better chance this summer than in the next several Olympics. You never know who might emerge as a threat. You never know who the next great talent might be or where she might live. Opportunity exists now. It’s also not certain Russia will compete in Rio, given the country hasn’t totally eradicated its doping issues and may be banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. No team from Russia means no Chicherova or Kuchina.
Is there risk to Cunningham turning pro? Of course.
The cautionary tale of a high jumper is that the event is far more technical than many assume. It’s not all about natural skill. It’s about the perfect steps and timing and making the correct decisions on when to pass on certain marks. It’s not like crouching in a block and running 100 meters as fast as you can. It’s not decided by a stopwatch.
The high jump is as much head game as talent game, and you can’t fathom the nerves an 18-year-old might feel when staring at veteran, impassioned Russian athletes who have been through the wars of a European track circuit and those of the Olympics, who know how to get packed stadiums involved and motivated.
It’s like the golfer who sits on a driving range and hits a pitching wedge within 5 feet of the hole every time with nobody watching, but then faces the same shot on Sunday at the 18th hole before a giant gallery and finds water.
Pressure makes people do weird things. Cunningham is good enough to stand on that medal platform in Rio. She also could make the Olympic team and go no-height and no one in the sport would blink an eye. It wouldn’t mean she isn’t fantastic, but the high jump is hard, technical stuff.
The best part is, we get to see it all play out and, selfishly, how wonderful would it be to watch her take down the giants of Eastern Europe?
Vashti Cunningham turned pro this week, and it was the best decision she could have made.
Now, the world awaits.
Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney