Vashti Cunningham becomes youngest U.S. track and field Olympian in 36 years

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EUGENE, Ore. — Vashti Cunningham clinched a Rio Olympic berth in the high jump on Sunday and, at age 18, became the youngest U.S. Olympian in the sport since 1980.

Cunningham, the daughter of retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, finished second to Chaunté Lowe, a mother of three and veteran of three Olympic teams. Inika McPherson was third to round out the Olympic team.

“To be able to go to the Olympics, I’m more happy than disappointed about finishing second,” said Cunningham, who received tips from her father and coach during the competition and then a hug afterward. “I always want to win, but this is something that will hit me on the head and make me work harder. I’ve got more motivation for Rio.”

On March 20, Cunningham won the world indoor title in nearby Portland, clearing 1.96 meters to beat a field largely lacking top Olympic medal contenders. She turned professional and signed with Nike a day later.

Before Cunningham made the Rio team, the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since 1980 was Allyson Felix, who was also 18 at the 2004 Athens Games, where she earned 200m silver.

In Rio, Cunningham could be a medal favorite. The best non-American clearance in the world this year is 1.99 meters by Poland’s Kamila Licwinko. Cunningham cleared 1.99 meters at the U.S. indoor championships on March 12. Lowe cleared 2.01 meters on Sunday.

Plus, the reigning Olympic and world champions are from Russia, whose track and field federation has been banned from Rio. Individual Russian athletes are expected to appeal for Olympic inclusion, though.

Cunningham’s older brother, also named Randall, is to compete in the men’s high jump at Trials on Friday and next Sunday. He is not favored to make the Olympic team.

“This is greater than anything I’ve ever done,” the retired quarterback told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “It’s always better when you’re seeing your kids doing it.”

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