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Cunningham_VashtiR-USOlyTr16.jpGVashti Cunningham, photo by PhotoRun.net

Lowe_Chaunte1a-USOlyTr16.jpGChaunte Lowe, photo by PhotoRun.net

Lowe, Cunningham Stage Epic High Jump Final

An undercurrent running through these Trials - as in all preceding Trials - is the ceaseless transformation in the cast of elite performers. New talent is constantly emerging while accomplished veterans battle to hold their ground. No one is disappointed when young athletes sprout up and step forward - fresh new talent is always embraced. But there is more than a tinge of sadness - a reminder of the temporal nature of athletic success - when revered, experienced performers on the track and in the field finally succumb to Father Time.

Never was this theme more evident than in the finals of the women's high jump - a spirited competition that produced one of the 8 world-leading performances on Day Three of these U.S. Olympic Trials for track & field.

12 finalists marched out onto the jump apron for the mid-afternoon final of the women's high jump. Missing was decorated American high jumper Amy Acuff who was eliminated in the qualifying round - ending her quest to make her 5th Olympic team. As the event progressed, it became clear that the anticipated dream confrontation between 32 year old American indoor and outdoor high jump record holder Chaunte Lowe and 18 year old reigning world indoor champion and newly-minted professional Vashti Cunningham was unfolding. As bar went up and the field narrowed, only three competitors - Lowe, Cunningham, and 29 year old former national champion Inika McPherson - successfully cleared 1.93m/6'4", assuring their berths on the Olympic team. The upstart and the veteran had clean cards to share the lead as the bar was raised to 1.95m/6'4¾" while McPherson - the diminutive 5'4", tattooed hipster who has a PR 2.00m PR, 37 centimeters over her height - had incurred two prior misses to hold down 3rd. At 1.95m, another first attempt clearance by Lowe - a mother of three - prompted yet another signature clearance dance, complete with condor-like arm flapping. With three misses at 1.95m, McPherson went quietly, but consoled by her ticket to Rio. The young Cunningham - with first and second attempt failures - took her time sizing up her final attempt at 1.95m. Showing she's a money player, the young jumper made that pressure-packed attempt to stay alive. With the event now transformed into a showdown of youth versus experience, the bar was quickly raised to 1.97m/6'5½". Jump order dictated that Cunningham attempt first. With hardly any time to compose herself after her critical third-attempt clearance only minutes before, Cunningham elicited an excited roar from the capacity Hayward Field crowd of 22,424 with a stunning first-attempt clearance. Now it was time to test the veteran's mettle. With the tables turned, Chaunte Lowe - still without a miss - would have to once again produce a first attempt clearance to hold on to first place. She did. At 1.99m/6'6¼", Lowe's second attempt clearance proved to be the winner when Cunningham went three and out. Lowe - and entertainer as well as a steely competitor - was not quite done. To the delight of the crowd, she cleared a world-leading 2.01m/6'7" before calling it a day.

Chaunte was all smiles in the mixed zone. "It feels really good. Today out here, I just wanted to do like an Olympic prelim just to see what it felt like. It felt so easy," explained the champion. "So I think I will be ready in several weeks - just keep training, fine tune things, and I think we may be able to see a sweep of the podium."

Lowe explained how she kept a narrow focus throughout the competition - monitoring only what she was doing. "Honestly, I didn't care about what [Vashti] jumped or 'Nika or anybody else. It was more about me," she revealed. "I wanted to come out here and do my personal best. The best I had jumped this year was 1.96. To come out here and jump 2.01 - and I felt I could jump a lot higher - it was just like, 'I've made it; let's stop; let's shut it down, and let's get ready for the Olympic Games."

The Trials victor used this time with the press to reveal the undetected reasons behind her sub-par performance at the Beijing world championships. "We had to move because my daughter was having different issues. They suspected she had autism or Asperger's. So we had to move to Florida to get her some help. And that's really what you guys were seeing last year when I went to Beijing and no-heighted. It wasn't that I was no longer able, it's because I put my children first. I really had to take the time and make sure that my daughter got right. She got the help that she needed," explained Lowe who went on to say her daughter is now doing well. "And I've been able to focus so much easier now every day."

The American record holder has also woven her faith into her training regimen. "That's what I did in my training this year. It was me and the Lord out there on that apron. My husband was out there helping me. And it turned out really well. And so we're halfway through, the next stop is Rio, and the last stop is that podium.

Vashti Cunningham offered insight on her two critical clearances. "On my 3rd attempt at 1.95, I knew I wasn't done. I knew my first two attempts were just getting me ready to jump that 3rd attempt with everything I have," the young jumper explained. "That 3rd attempt was more me proving to myself that I know I can come back after two misses, that I can go to the next height." On her clutch success on first attempt at 1.97m, she said, "I was just happy knowing that I would be going to the next level."

Lowe chimed in to reveal her reaction after Vashti's huge clearances. "I thought, 'Shoot, now I have to clear this on my first attempt.' It caused me to focus," laughed the new champion, who added, "I used to cheer for my competitors. But at the end of the day, I want to win. I'll cheer for you afterwards. Right now, we're on the battlefield."

Lowe addressed her sincere admiration for Cunningham, but at the same time admonished the media for its attempts to fabricate a heated rivalry between them. "I think she is a tremendous girl," declared Lowe without reservation. "I think for reporters try and pit us against each other. There is a lot of knowledge that I have that could help her have longevity in her career. I think that is what I would like to see in the future because I like her and I think she's a great girl. And she is definitely the future of the high jump. And I want to see America continuously bring home those high jump medals. But it's not going to be easy if [the media] continues to pit us against each other."

Clutching the Trials gold medal which also represents her 10th national high jump championship, Lowe took time to share what this means to her. "This may very well be my last Olympic Games. Obviously, I see a changing of the guard in the high jump. I'm going there [Rio] to get my medal," offered Lowe. "Obviously, I'll do world championships for the next couple of years. But I don't see myself going to the next Olympic Trials. Making this 4th team and being as strong as I've ever been before going to the Games, I feel like this is everything to me."

Chaunte Lowe is a gracious and charming ambassador for our sport. She is also one of the fiercest competitors in track & field. But she is also a realist. The now 4-time Olympian is fueled by a sense of urgency as she can sense time's winged chariot hurrying near. And she is determined not to surrender her place in the spotlight until she is tapped every ounce of her potential. The 10-time national champion knows that Vashti Cunningham is a young, talented, and poised athlete who has already been anointed by the media as the new emerging darling of the sport. Chaunte Lowe understands that eventually she will surrender the U.S. women's high jump throne to this rising star. But at these Trials, she's also shown she is just not ready to do it quite yet.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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