Gabbi Cunningham transitioned from singing, dancing and acting at a tender age to becoming the current US Indoor Track and Field 60-meter hurdles champion.
Throughout her youth, Cunningham was always active but with a rare interest in sports until high school where she began cheerleading and ran track. This was the turning point in her life.
She went on to pursue a professional career in hurdles and sprints and competed in her first US Indoor Championship, winning gold in the 60-meter hurdles race at the age of 22.
The American athlete’s greatest sporting dream was to qualify for this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, however due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, she has had to reset her sights and use this time to sharpen her skills.
And, as life has become challenging dealing with lockdown, Cunningham reiterates that her training schedule has not changed as she aims to keep her momentum going and keep herself motivated and inspired.
She also counts retired track and field athlete, Gail Devers, as an inspiration and is aiming to follow in her footsteps by winning gold in the 100m hurdles and top it off, break the current record time.
In an open and honest chat with gsport, Cunningham spoke about her major highlights of her career so far and shares advice to young up and coming hurdlers.
Gabbi, where do you live?
I live in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I train at NC State.
Which University do you attend, and what have you studied?
I attended North Carolina State University, where I double majored in communications, with the concentration in media and sport management.
“So I’m kind of really just really taking it as more time to prepare for the Olympics.” – US track and field athlete, Gabbi Cunningham
You were relying on a strong indoor season to claim a place in the US Olympic team, unfortunately with live sport cancelled and news of Olympics postponed to next year, … you have another year to wait. How are you dealing with this and approaching the year ahead?
So I’m kind of really just really taking it as more time to prepare for the Olympics, definitely, with it being postponed, that was significant news for this year, but it also allowed me and other athletes to take an approach and be able to, take things, kinda …, a step back, and work on things we may have felt, um, we needed to work on.
And so, that’s kind of the approach I’m taking, as more time for me to train, get fit, and work on things that I felt, ah, could have been better this season.
How has COVID-19 impacted your sporting career and how are you coping during lockdown?
I would say that COVID-19 has impacted my sporting career significantly, it was my first year running professionally, and of course, after the indoor season, everything kinda came to a stop, due to COVID-19.
I kinda really just been coping with it by staying fit and training and remaining on the same track as if the Olympics were still happening, but just at a later date.
If the lockdown is lifted, what can you salvage from this year from a sporting perspective?
So, although the outdoor season was kind of like taken away from us, due to COVID, I definitely think that me being still being able to train and work out, pretty much on the same schedule as I was on before, something that I can really take in to and give me momentum next year if we do happen to be able to have a season after this is lifted, then that would be great. I would definitely be willing to compete as long as me and other athletes, fans and just the general public were safe to do so!
How are you keeping fit during this time?
By staying fit, I’m just trying to keep with the same training regime that I have before all of this kind of stopped, as much as I can. I know it’s harder to find facilities to work out it, but I’m still able to weight train, and still do workouts, so, that’s kind of helping me stay fit and on the same path that I was on before all of this basically started with the COVID-19.
At 22, you are the current US Indoor Track and Field 60-meter hurdles champion. Take us back to the time you achieved this feat.
So, this was my first US Indoor Championship, so being able to come in and definitely secure the win, was a significant thing for me. During that time in the race, I kind of just told myself to relax and rely on everything that I had been working on in training, and throughout the whole race, just keep pushing, until the end. And when I looked up, I realised that I had got first place, and, …
For me, this kind of gave me an idea of where I was at in my Indoor season, going into the Outdoor season, so, it was a good gauge.
And of course, with the Olympics being postponed, uhm, we don’t know how an Outdoor season would look, but I know that if I continue on that progression, that I’m in a pretty good place.
“Another major highlight for me was running at the Millrose Games Indoor – It was really my first professional race.” – Gabbi Cunningham
What are some of the other major highlights you have had?
Another major highlight for me was running at the Millrose Games Indoor – It was really my first professional race, I had run in the other meets, of course, before then, but they were kinda at local colleges around the area that I was training in, so the Millrose Games gave me a kinda idea of what running in a professional race would be like, and this was this was a week before I ran at the US Indoor Championship, so I feel like it kind of gave me like an idea of what running at the US Championship would be like, and it kind of like set it up, so that I was more prepared and ready going into the US Indoor Championships.
Have you always been sporty and when did you settle on hurdles as your discipline?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I have always a sporty person, but I have always been active. In my younger years, I actually used to sing, dance and act, I was kinda like that artsy kid, and then, I started cheerleading.
And when I got to high school, it was when I started to run track and became more of a sporty-type person – I cheered and ran track at high school, and …
Throughout high school I ran hurdles and sprints, and throughout college I actually ran hurdles and sprints, and so, when it was time to decide on whether I wanted to run professionally or not, I … That’s when I decided that I was kinda going to focus more in on hurdles and get down the technique.
But I do still run sprints, and I feel like sprinting is a huge part of hurdling, because the faster you can sprint, the faster you can hurdle. I like to incorporate a lot of sprinting into my hurdles workouts, and hurdles is my main discipline, but I also do complete in the sprints as well.
How do you deal with challenges and what is your strategy to overcome these and move on?
So, with challenges, I like to attack them head-on. But I also like to relax, and take a step back, because, I feel that if you start to get frustrated with the challenge, then it’s going to be harder to overcome.
So, for me, I like to relax, take a step back, so that it will allow me to be able to overcome the challenge.
And as far as moving on from it, I feel that it’s something that you live and you learn from, and you don’t dwell on it, you just move on, and just basically take that learning experience with you, the experience you got from overcoming that challenge.
“My family is very supportive of my sporting career, my parents are like my biggest fans.” – Gabbi Cunningham
Tell us about your family and their support for your sporting career.
My family is very supportive of my sporting career, my parents are like my biggest fans – they try to make it to every track meet that they can, if not every track meet, and I am very appreciative of that!
My family overall, whether it’s my brother or my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, they also are very supportive of my track career, and they’re my biggest fans. Whenever they can re-post things on Facebook, just promoting me, or even come out to a track meet, they do so.
So, I feel like my family is very supportive of my track career, and they have always told me to just push for my dreams, since I was younger and running at high school, just starting out.
Who are some of the top women hurdlers you admire?
Some of the top women hurdlers that I admire would be Sally Pearson, Lolo Jones, Gail Devers – of course Gail Devers was a hurdler and sprinter, and for me it has always been a goal to be a hurdler and sprinter … I also grew up throughout high school and my early years of college watching Brianna (Rollins-) McNeal and Kendra Harrison, and I really admired the way that they attacked the hurdles and just the aggressiveness they took to the race, and, this was something that I wanted to incorporate in my hurdling, as I became a collegiate runner and professional athlete.
What is your greatest sporting dream?
So, I would say my greatest sporting dream is of course to be Olympic gold medalist, uhmm … As I mentioned before, one the athletes I looked up to a lot was Gail Devers, she has been a gold medalist in the 100 hurdles and the 100 dash, so, that has always been a goal of mine, while also being able to break the 100m hurdles world record and, …
I think, a big part of that dream, not only being able to break records and bring home gold medals, but to also be able to leave a legacy behind, where kids can look up to me, and be able to look at me as a person that kind of inspires them to go after their dreams as hard as they can, no matter what anyone tells them, no matter how big or small their dream is, to just go after it!
What do you think needs to happen to improve the state of women’s sport globally?
I think that we have definitely being doing a lot to improve women’s sport globally, but we need to continue to have a stronger perch, if not stronger, because I feel like it is starting to be a topic that everyone is talking about, and if we can get people from all different sports – whether it’s male or female, to advocate for women in sport globally, then eventually, if we continue with this strong push, there will be a breakthrough.
What can the world learn from the United States about the promotion of women’s sport?
I definitely feel like promotion for women in sports has gotten a lot better, there have been a lot more ad campaigns promoting women in sport with different companies.
The topic of equality with women in sport has been a major topic, and we’ve seen improvement with the W-NBA, and even women’s soccer, uhm – it was a big thing.
So, I think everywhere globally should continue to advocate for women in sports, and continue to push promotion and equality, because women deserve to be recognised just as much as men do.
What is your advice to young hurdlers about reaching for their dreams?
My advice to young hurdlers reaching for their dreams would definitely be to go for it! Don’t let anyone tell you – no matter how big or small your dream is – that you can’t do it. And there will be people who will tell you what you can and can’t do.
Photo 1 Caption: US Indoor Track and Field 60-meter hurdles champion, Gabbi Cunningham’s interest in athletics began in high school. She eventually chose hurdles and sprints as a career of her choice. Photo: Supplied
Photo 2 Caption: The American athlete’s greatest sporting dream was to qualify for this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, however due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, she has had to reset her sights and use this time to sharpen her skills. Photo: Supplied
Photo 3 Caption: “Some of the top women hurdlers that I admire would be Sally Pearson, Lolo Jones, Gail Devers – of course Gail Devers was a hurdler and sprinter, and for me it has always been a goal to be a hurdler and sprinter.” – Cunningham on the female athletes she admires. Photo: Supplied
Photo 4 Caption: The 22-year-old advises up and coming hurdlers to reach for their dreams and not let anyone deter them from their path. Photo: Supplied