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Meet Vashti Cunningham: The Team USA High Jumper Breaking Records With Killer Style

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It’s official: Vashti Cunningham is no longer a rookie. The record-breaking American high jumper from Las Vegas is off to Tokyo for her second Olympic appearance, and the world is waiting to see what she’ll do next. At her first Olympics, Vashti was a recent high school graduate and a brand new face to Team Nike and Team USA. Since then, she’s grown up both on and off the track and field, and while her performance is undoubtedly what brings the crowds, her style and beauty are what keep us talking, rooting for her, and taking notes.

Standing at six foot one inches, with an athletic, modelesque frame, Vashti doesn’t have to do much to make her presence known. A quick scan of her Instagram displays a young woman who is not afraid to experiment with her style. One day, she’s rocking braids. Next, she’s allowing her natural hair to flow freely—full and voluminous with a few stray locs that garner a second look at the nape of her neck. The rising star has clearly grown both in her performance and in her sense of style since the 2016 Rio Olympics, so we caught up with her to learn what beauty and accomplishment look like through her unique lens.

Going for Gold

As a high-performing athlete, Vashti is constantly raising the bar for herself—literally. At just 18 years old, she cleared a six foot five inch jump at her first Olympic trials. In 2021, she did even better, clearing six feet and seven and a half inches at the Chula Vista Field Fest just days before the Olympic trials, boasting the highest jump worldwide of the year.

Performing at such a high level and at such a young age would be intimidating to most, but Vashti seems to have been born for it. “I do best under pressure, which is what I was taught by my parents,” she shares. “My dad showed me the pressures of being the best quarterback and my mom showed me the pressures of being a native South African moving to NYC and succeeding as a dancer.” Vashti’s father and coach, Randal Cunningham, is a former four-time Pro Bowl NFL quarterback who played in the league for 16 years, leaving a legacy at the Philadelphia Eagles. Her mother, Felicity Cunningham (formerly Felicity De Jager), made her mark as a Dance Theatre of Harlem Ballerina. She credits them both for her drive and ability to have made it this far.

Showing Up Authentically

Black women often feel the need to assimilate their style in order to avoid unwanted criticism, but we shouldn’t expect to see Vashti toning herself down any time soon. In a world where Serena Williams was criticized for competing in a catsuit and Olympic gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner (lovingly known as Flo Jo) made more headlines for her nails and tailor-made track outfits than her accomplishments, Vashti says that showing up authentically is one of her “top three most important things.”

Style and confidence are typically a package deal, but this high jumper doesn’t have a problem standing out. “I have always had confidence in myself since I was young,” she says. “When I was younger, I was the tallest and fastest in my class and I always competed with the boys. This molded my confidence at a young age.” This confidence isn’t just limited to competition. It carries over to her style and beauty choices as well—never shying away from her own preferences for the sake of trends or societal norms. “My approach to style and beauty is 100 percent what I want. If something pops in my head, there is no second guessing it. It is all about attacking your deepest desires for your own looks.”

Whether wearing glitter and rhinestone eye makeup looks on the track or competing with her natural hair in full form, Vashti says that her style is her “chance to show who I am and what I am all about. It is my opportunity to demonstrate my creativity and individuality.” Her personal style isn’t just useful as inspo to her growing social media following, it’s also opening doors off the field. In 2018, she shared a runway with the world’s top supermodels at the Off-White "Track & Field" Spring 2019 Paris Fashion Week, an experience that she describes as “such a dream.” Just a year later, she returned to Paris to debut Nike’s new women’s collection (including the World Cup uniforms) at the Palais Brongniart.

Paving Her Own Way

It takes fearlessness and audacity to go after your dreams so boldly, but Vashti has the talent and work ethic to back it up. At just 18 years old, she opted out of the collegiate path in pursuit of the pros, and quickly joined Team Nike. “Joining Nike at 18 was very different for me,” says Vashti. “In high school I was trying to save my money to buy pro spandex and sports bras and then suddenly, I was getting boxes of clothes and people reaching out to me. I felt very mature at a young age joining such a global brand.” Nike’s investment and Vashti’s risks are surely paying off, as she’s expected to secure a medal at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. “I feel that mentally I have grown tremendously. I was a teenager at the last games, and it was my first time being at a big venue. I am going into this track meet with the mindset of winning and owning the stage.”

Currently, Vashti’s goal is going for gold on Team USA and to break the women’s high jump world record. What does life look like after jumping for the star? To our surprise, she shares, “I aspire to be a National Geographic photographer after my track and field career. I want to show the world my perspective on life and nature.” For now, we’ll watch her win on the world’s stage and echo her words that “this is only the beginning.”

Interested in reading more Beauty Through The Black Lens? Read how celebrity stylist Lacy Redway is changing the beauty industry. Want in on all the IPSY Glam Bag fun? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
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Kindra Moné
Kindra Moné is a writer and content creator who works with brands and magazines to create culturally relevant fashion and beauty content. She is also the founder of The Moné Edit: a community and podcast at the intersection of style and wellness.
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Article Last Updated July 5, 2021 12:00 AM