Malik Cunningham Enjoying Stellar Senior Season


Malik Cunningham (above) will compete in the triple jump at the NCAA Championships on Saturday.

Jacob Artz, Staff Writer

Usually, when an uncle, who is the head coach for the grade school basketball team, and a father both played collegiate basketball, a person is inclined to follow in their footsteps. Despite the family ties, senior triple jumper Malik Cunningham eventually chose his own path, but it was not a swift process.

Before Cunningham was nailing down his routine for the triple jump, he was nailing jump shots and flying in for rebounds for the grade school basketball team. 

After Cunningham was done with his first season on junior varsity, coaches implored him to try out for the track and field team because of his “decent hops,” but he was steadfast on playing basketball, skipping the track and field workouts.

The track coaches would not stand for Cunningham to continue to play basketball, telling him “You need to come out and try out” during the 8th grade basketball season. 

Once Cunningham decided to give track and field a try, the results came quickly, especially in his first event, the high jump. 

“I got a record in the first meet I went to,” Cunningham said.

The basketball passion still flowed through his body, and he continued to play both sports in high school. Cunningham, from St. Andrew’s, Jamaica, went to school at Jamaica College, one of the bigger high schools in Jamaica for track and field and a good place for Cunningham to build his foundation in jumping. Jamaica College’s competitive environment pushed all the athletes to perform to the best of their abilities, and forced Cunningham to realize that good is not good enough and to push for more.

In his senior year, he realized he was putting up better results in the track and field events and had a better opportunity.

“I was competing at the level where I would be able to get a scholarship to the U.S., so that’s basically the motivation,” Cunningham said.

This provided a chance for Villanova University to recruit Cunningham. Villanova already had close connections to Cunningham, as Villanova’s associate head coach in the jumps and sprints, Anthony Williams, attended Jamaica College as well.

The relationship between Cunningham and Williams have served the pair well over the course of his time at Villanova.

“He definitely cares for me on and off the track,” Cunningham said. “He’s pulling for me at all times, making sure I’m eating right, getting my schoolwork done.”

Before Cunningham got to the national level of jumps, his career started out slow, since he had to get used to the coach and the techniques. Cunningham eventually got better at interpreting what the coaches were telling him, and the coaches knew what was best for his competition. The combination allowed them to work on speed and strength. 

Last indoor season, Cunningham recorded mid-14 meter jumps of 14.65 and 14.36 and the outdoor season saw him record most of his jumps in the 14 meter range, with two jumps more than 15 meters, a decline from the 2020 indoor season, when Cunningham was consistently recording more than 15 meter jumps in the meets.

This indoor season has been different.  

Cunningham recorded a huge jump of 15.79 meters at the Columbia Challenge on Feb. 4, and then, eight days later, recorded a personal best of 16.12 meters at the Tiger Paw Invite at Clemson University, which is the number that qualified Cunningham for the NCAA Championships this weekend.

“Mainly, I said it was a very competitive environment out there,” Cunningham reasoned for his personal best at the Tiger Paw Invite. “There were a lot of guys getting into the high 15s, low 16s, so that was like the main force, and then, basically, our coaches told me ‘you’re just going to have to rip it, let loose.’”

Triple jumping is a very precise sport. Cunningham has struggled at times this season with the razor thin margin of error between fouling and executing a personal best jump. The small margin often comes down to a few tenths of a meter in the timing of the jump.

Cunningham will need another well-timed jump to move up in the national standings this weekend, as he currently sits in a tie for 15th place at 16.12 meters with the leader at 16.80 meters.

“I’m just planning on going in with a positive mindset, you know, knowing exactly what I need to do,” Cunningham said. “I was talking to my coach today at the end of the day, and basically what we need to do is just focus on trying to speed down the runway, come in with as much speed as possible, and being efficient through the phases so we’re not losing speed.”