Superheroes don’t need rescuing, or so they say. They conquer limitations, achieve the impossible, and are invariably constant in spirit. Vashti Cunningham, a world-renowned Olympic track and field athlete, is the true embodiment of a superhero. She went pro in the high jump at the age of 17 and has since notched an impressive list of accomplishments, including winning Gold in both the US Indoor and Outdoor National Championships. In this story, there’s no damsel in distress, only a superhero with remarkable power that the world can’t help but be in awe of.
Even so, superheroes need rescuing, too. The internal, emotional state is a sensitive, often neglected ecosystem that must be nurtured with gentleness, and this doesn’t exclude the superheroes of our world, including Vashti Cunningham. Rather, Cunningham—the daughter of a former NFL quarterback who played in 16 seasons—is living and breathing proof that the need for rescue does not make one weak, but rather much stronger—rejuvenated even. Cunningham may be the #1 ranked high jumper in the U.S., but apart from her physical strength, she possesses a vulnerability that is grounded and reliant on that which we cannot see. For Cunningham, emotional rescue comes from the divine, and a continuously deepening relationship with God.
We caught up with the champion following her photo shoot at Los Angeles natural history exhibition, Dinos Alive Los Angeles, where her unequivocal physical presence felt very at ease amongst the millions of years-old relics, who also knew, in their own way, the complex challenges for survival and balance.
When did you first find your affinity for track and field, and then specifically high jump?
I was introduced to the sport very young, in the fourth grade, and I fell in love with it when I started high jumping later that year. I was training with the high schoolers, and you could only join the track team when you hit fith grade. So I loved that separation.
What goes through your mind right before a competition? Do you have any traditions or superstitions?
Before competition, I like to focus on film and God. I watch previous competitions of myself jumping to refresh my mind and spark some muscle memory. But my dad prepares a message for me before every competition, and that gives me the confidence I need to go out and perform knowing God is in control.
What have you learned after finishing your last season? Is there anything that you take from the sport that applies to your personal life, and vice versa?
After this season, I had to force myself to understand and process defeat. Something I’m not used to. It was a rough ending to one of the biggest meets of the year for me, and I was down, bad for a little while. I had to remember that I am God’s daughter and regardless of medals, and achievements, I am still precious to the most high.
Who do you feel motivates you to continue training on days that seem harder, and where do you go to unwind?
What has motivated me on the hardest days recently was remembering that I didn’t achieve my goals this year. I will give everything in myself to make up for that. It’s essential for me to get out of my city and relax regularly, so I go to the mountains to unwind and free my mind.
How does fashion and high jump intersect for you?
I have been blessed to start showing how I can bring fashion into my sport and my discipline. I’ve done shoots where I’m expected to high jump in designer dresses. I want to bring fashion into track and field as much as I can to bridge the gap between culture and sport.
How do you prioritize your mental health? Do you find a haven or a sense of rescue in your sport?
Mental health is a key in track and field. Being a part of an individual sport can be a blessing and a curse. Knowing that no one can affect your performance, and then the other side—knowing it’s all up to you. If you’re not mentally strong it can eat you up.
What is something you wish you could metaphorically jump over?
If I could jump over something metaphorically, it would definitely be the haters.
What is something that you see everyday that the world needs to overcome or needs saving from?
I think we all need saving from our own thoughts sometimes. We can be our own worst critics and put so much pressure on ourselves.
Photographed by Andi Elloway
Written by Lauren Vander Tuig
Styled by Britton Litow
Makeup: Kendall Bennewitz
Location: Dinos Alive Exhibition