The three priestesses of the high jump—the American reps in Rio—are an unconventional and disparate bunch, whose ability to launch themselves over a 6'6" bar is almost less interesting than how they made it to the Olympics in the first place.
The veteran, 32-year-old Chaunté Lowe, has three children, the American record, indoor and out, 15 years at the top of the sport, and just made her fourth Olympic team. The debutante, 18-year-old Vashti Cunningham, won the World Indoor Championship while in her senior year of high school, getting $40,000 from the IAAF, a Mercedes-Benz from her adoring parents—one of whom is former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham—and a presumably solid gold Nike contract.
And then there is Inika McPherson, the only 5'4" woman to ever clear 6'6-3/4", two meters. Bear in mind that high jump is almost exclusively populated by tall, willowy people. After becoming the fourth American woman to ever clear two meters while, at the same time, winning the 2014 U.S. Championship, she did not receive a Mercedes-Benz or a Nike contract.
She received a 21-month suspension for testing positive for benzoylecgonine, the main metabolite in cocaine.
“I went to a party the weekend before USAs,” McPherson explained. “I was drinking, not really aware of what was going on, and I was like, how the heck did this happen? I know I’m going to be tested at meets. I had just got out of jail, had a couple days of practice, and then went to the Championships.”
We’d best back up, about 29 years.
The McPherson’s were not blessed with great height. Neither of Inika’s parents topped 5'8", and chip off the old block, she was a small kid. She grew up with three older brothers and one sister in Port Arthur, Texas, a town mostly known for its oil refineries.
“We definitely struggled,” McPherson recalled from Houston. “My dad was in and out of our lives, but my mom was a strong and independent woman. She worked two or three jobs at a time. She always said I raised myself, but she found time to take care of us. She expected us to get up and fix our beds before we got out the door. Seeing her work hard for us, that’s where I got my work ethic.”
Tagging along to play basketball with her older brothers served as early jumps training, and in fourth grade a gym teacher introduced the high jump, teaching both the scissors and Fosbury Flop. When she joined the Port Arthur Flyers track club the summer after fifth grade, the standards and jumping pit looked familiar to her.
“Flyers didn’t really have a jumps coach, so while everybody did their running drills, the coach, Gerald Armstrong—I think he’s still there—said, ‘you go over there and take care of business.’ They thought I was just playing, bouncing around. But I looked up technique on the internet. I became a student of the sport. I watched videos, and then did it by myself.”
“I was not immediately good at it,” McPherson said of her attraction to high jump. “I liked that you’re always challenging yourself, mentally and physically, because you have to be a gymnast, a ballerina, and do track at the same time. I had to learn how to be light on my feet. Every time I do it, it just feels like a performance.”
The Flyers held car washes and other fundraisers to get the club to the Junior Olympics, where McPherson won the high jump after sixth and seventh grades.
She won the Texas state meet her freshman year with an eye-opening 6-foot jump (The only other freshman to clear six feet? Fellow Olympian Vashti Cunningham.), and finished high school with a best of 6'2". She lettered in basketball, volleyball, cross country—“I loved cross country; I still go out and run two or three miles in the off season”—and track, and maintained a 5.0 GPA. But it was her jumping prowess that earned McPherson a full scholarship to the University of California-Berkeley.
Though she had access to jump-specific coaches and world-class training facilities for the first time, McPherson was plagued with injuries at Cal. Persistent plantar fasciitis and scar tissue in her ankle were treated with cortisone shots that allowed her to compete successfully—she was a three-time All-American—but ultimately exacerbated the problem. Finally, she couldn’t put off surgery any longer and went under the knife in March 2008. She medical redshirted the 2008 outdoor season which, the coaching staff promised, would be made up by tacking on an additional indoor season in 2010.
At the beginning of 2009, Cal named her Female Athlete of the Year, and in the spring she won the PAC-10 Outdoor Championship. Only four classes, electives, shy of graduation, she met with coach Tony Sandoval early in the fall of 2009, her senior year. They talked about getting books, starting classes, and about post-collegiate plans leading to the 2012 Olympics. Shortly after the 2009 fall semester had started, though, McPherson got a call from Sandoval to come to the office. Two other coaches were there.
“They said, ‘Your scholarship is done. We paid for summer school for two summers.’ My coaches at that time had told me to stay and train over the summer for USAs, so I took a couple classes to stay eligible. But those coaches were no longer there. I was like, ‘okay cool, I can get a job to pay for school, but I’m still on the track team, right?’ And they said no. I was off the team and wouldn’t be allowed to train there either. I just started crying.”
McPherson was shocked—she said she attended classes, got good grades, completed all her degree requirements, and didn’t party. Confused and somewhat numb, she filed an appeal but, she said, never got an answer as to why she was removed from the track team.
A Cal Athletics spokesperson issued this statement with regard to McPherson’s time as a Bear: “Inika was ineligible to compete for the 2009-10 academic year, although we did continue to provide her with athletic aid through the fall 2009 semester.”
“Man, I was done with life,” she told me. “My heart was ripped out of my chest. I cried every day. I didn’t care about life anymore.” The devastation led McPherson to what she described as “the wrong environment,” where she “wasn’t paying attention to where I was spending most of my time.”
“I started dating a stripper,” she said. “Before that, I wouldn’t even let people smoke around me. This was a whole different life, a down-and-out lifestyle for sure.”
“After about a year, I thought, ‘I have to follow my dreams,’” said McPherson. She began training solo, utilizing whatever came handy, “running around the block and jumping over trash cans, doing plyometrics off the porch, a lot of reps with a body bar.” She moved back to Texas, where she lived in a trailer park in Nederland, a city near Port Arthur, and drove a taxi to support herself.
“I’d work 12-hour shifts, then go out and train, just by myself. My mom helped me out a lot. In May 2011, she rented me a car, I drove eight hours to an all-comers meet in El Paso and jumped a personal best, six-four. It was a qualifier for Worlds, in my first meet back!”
Stop and take a moment to let the magnitude of her accomplishment sink in. With no coach, no teammates, no sponsor, and no access to high jumping facilities, McPherson hit a World Championships-qualifying mark in her first go over the equipment in two years. High jump is a highly technical event—the number of steps and cadence of the approach, the take off, and timing and body position over the bar are very specific. It’d be like Rory McIlroy taking two years off to lift weights and play beer league softball, and coming back to win the Masters.
But even with the qualifying mark, she needed to place in the top three at the U.S. Outdoor Championships to make the World Championships team. She did, and jetted off to Daegu, South Korea, to compete in September 2011. After this stunning DIY success, McPherson received some financial support from USA Track & Field which made her life easier, such that after a few months she quit the taxi gig.
Encouraged by the results of her unorthodox training regimen and heading into an Olympic year, McPherson decided that more was the answer: more reps, more weights, more of everything. It seemed to work. She placed second at the 2012 U.S. Indoor Championships, and competed at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul. A month later she PR’d with a world class 6 foot 4.77 inch (1.95 meters) clearance at the Mt. SAC Relays.
“l didn’t know what I was doing though,” she said. “A week before the Olympic Trials, I strained my quad in a run-up. The next day, I couldn’t even walk. I went to this chiropractor who was seeing me for free. He took an MRI and found a tear in my right quad. I went to the Trials anyway with tape on my leg.”
She no-heighted at the Olympic Trials, and had to take the rest of the 2012 outdoor season off. She’d moved to Houston, and with the help of family and friends, got back on the horse—running, working out. Again, cherrypicking techniques she picked up from past coaches, other jumpers, and online videos, she won the 2013 U.S. Indoor Championship in March. In May, she ran into Patrick Pyle, a former decathlete and jumps coach, at the Rice University track.
“She asked if she could use the high jump pit and I jokingly said no,” Pyle recounted by phone from Houston. “I knew who she was, of course. We started talking high jump. I asked who she was working with and she said she was coaching herself.”
“When we met, I knew she partied,” said Pyle. “I had an idea she was maybe not living a model elite athlete lifestyle.” But Pyle also knew McPherson was “I think, the most gifted jumper on the planet,” and took a pragmatic view of her vices. “She was 26 years old, not a college kid. One of the first things you learn as a coach is that you have to give some athletes leeway. If I had come down as a dictator, I think she would have said goodbye, and who knows what would have happened to her. I knew her jumping success and that she’s tested frequently, at competitions and out of competition, so her lifestyle didn’t seem that much of a problem. I thought, ‘if she can get in some good structured practices, if she’s getting fitter, learning, and asking questions, then I can look the other way with regard to lifestyle.’ Is it perfect? No, but I was willing to take a gamble.”
McPherson placed second at the 2013 U.S. Outdoor Championships, putting her on the plane to compete at the World Championships in Moscow, where she failed to qualify for the final. In March 2014 she won her second consecutive U.S. Indoor Championship, and a month later set a personal best of 1.96 meters.
“Things were going well,” said Pyle. “We could see she was on the upswing, and as well as she had jumped, we knew there was so much more potential. I was saying in early 2014 that she would jump two meters.”
But with increased success came increased income, and while it didn’t make her anywhere close to rich, it was more than she’d ever had in the past. McPherson’s off-the-clock partying reached a tipping point.
“I don’t know why I was even in trouble,” she told me, before explaining why she was in trouble. “I got mixed up in trying to stop a bar fight.” According to the warrant for her arrest issued in February 2013, McPherson exchanged punches with other patrons at a bar in Sugar Land, and after the off-duty cop working security stopped the fight, McPherson struck him.
McPherson’s court dates interfered with her training and vice versa, and after missing an October 2013 hearing she forfeited her bond and was re-arrested. After numerous delays, and with the U.S. Outdoor Championships coming up in June 2014, McPherson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, and was sentenced to 30 days in jail (receiving credit for 13 days already served) and fined $1,500.
Her sister paid her fine—“which I’m very thankful for”—and McPherson served the necessary time. “I was on lockdown—I had to stay in my cell,” she explained, “because people would want to fight me. But me and coach had a plan. I did my circuit times two every day—squats, lunges, pushups, crunches. I had one hour out to shower, watch TV for a little bit, and then get back in my cell.”
Her motivation for sticking to the plan was simple. “I was not willing to let go of my dream,” she told me, “to be an Olympic athlete and win the gold.”
In a celebratory mood after sorting out her legal issues, she says she went to a party the weekend before 2014 U.S. Outdoor Nationals, where she ultimately cleared two meters for the first time. At the time and now, McPherson took responsibility for her friends and her decisions.
“I wouldn’t call them bad people. It’s a different crowd; they’re living life the way they want to live. I love those people. It’s about me learning what I can and can’t do as an athlete. I put nothing on anyone but myself. I should have been more aware of what I was doing.”
When the positive test for benzoylecgonine came back, McPherson was suspended for 21 months. Reaction from the track and field community was mixed. In their report, USADA concluded that the drug was not taken for performance enhancing purposes, but some still credited the stimulant with her inch-and-a-half PR. Most observers thought, if there was even enough in her system to have an effect, it would be more detrimental than beneficial. Still others weighed in that the 21-month suspension was overly harsh, and should have included treatment rather than punishment.
McPherson told me her cocaine use was strictly social, and that she wasn’t addicted. “There was definitely not much in my system,” she said, “nothing that could have helped me anyway. I didn’t want any types of drugs to get better. I want to be the person who gets it with hard work and grit.” On the verge of major sponsorship after breaking the two meter barrier, potential sponsors fled. “It was a bad dream—to have gold and everything you want, and you wake up and it’s gone.”
No longer earning prize money, she got through the suspension by picking up jobs through a temp agency, usually washing dishes at the convention center in Houston, as “a lot of people wouldn’t take me because of the tattoos.” She also “downsized” from a $600 per month apartment to a friend’s place, where she paid $200 each month.
“Was this ideal,” asked her coach Patrick Pyle, rhetorically. “Obviously not. Of course, sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it. The chances that another coach would put up with this are slim, but Inika possesses that rare truly elite capability. When you recognize that, you find you can put up with more shit than you thought you could, or more than others would agree with. This is cliche, but you have to keep your eyes on the prize. You have to adapt. We have to adapt a lot, but we get the job done.”
McPherson began seriously training again in October 2015, but, again, ran into difficulty finding a high jump facility available to her—schools usually restrict use to those affiliated with the school. Once again, coach and athlete got creative, using the weight room and basketball court at a 24 Hour Fitness. “A lay-up is actually a very similar movement to a high jump take-off,” Pyle noted. “It was far far from ideal, but again, we made it work.”
McPherson’s suspension ended April 26, 2016. That left two months to hit the Olympic qualifying standard of 1.93 meters (about 6 feet 4 inches). Traveling to meets to get that mark was going to be an expensive proposition, but in May, agent Karen Locke signed McPherson and immediately provided a $1,500 stipend for hotels and airfare. McPherson got to work.
“At the first meet, I jumped 1.95 [meters] but there were only three competitors, not five like you’re supposed to have. A week after that, I jumped 1.94 and there were five competitors, so I thought it was in the bag. I went into the U.S. Olympic Trials thinking I had the qualifier and all I had to do was get top three. I didn’t know until afterward that that meet was not sanctioned.”
No matter, McPherson placed third at the Trials with a jump of 1.93 meters, giving her the qualifying mark, and made her first Olympic team. Surrounded by media after the competition, she frequently credited coach Pyle, and when we spoke later she said, “He’s my coach but he’s also one of my closest friends. I couldn’t have asked for a better person in my life.”
World-class athletes—particularly those in Olympic sports—are put on a pedestal, held to a narrow ideal. But athletic gifts come wrapped up in a complex human package. It’s the messy, sometimes challenging human delivery system that makes stratospheric talent so mesmerizing.
The tattoos, the piercings and ‘dos—those aren’t just window dressing. McPherson is not like Vashti Cunningham or Chaunte Lowe. But as true as she is to her unconventional self, she knows when it’s time for a change. She says she’s made some lifestyle changes—she now meditates, eats healthy, gets to bed early, and is, according to Coach Pyle, “incredibly fit.” Even now, McPherson is demonstrating there’s more than one way to get over a 6'6" bar.
Update: A statement from Cal Athletics responding to our request for more information about McPherson’s time at the University has been added.