By Bob Thomas, Associate Sports Information Director
TALLAHASSEE – In Trey Cunningham’s athletic domain, obstacles – or more precisely, 42-inch hurdles – come at him every second, over the course of races covering 60 to 110 meters.
Now imagine having the ability to make adjustments between those barriers.
Cunningham has that ability, which is why the Florida State junior from Winfield, Ala., a town of 5,000 midway between Birmingham and Tupelo, Miss., is a world-class talent.
“In the hurdles you have a goal,” Cunningham said, describing his passion for the event. “You have to get over the barrier, navigate your way with appropriate footing, timing and distance, perfectly. If you don’t, you’ll hit it, you’ll nick it, your trail leg will get caught and it causes a whole chain of events.
“With me being such a perfectionist…there are so many variables with hurdling, that you’ll never be perfect. I’ll always have something to work on, that’s why I like it so much.”
For as far back as he can remember, Cunningham has never shied away from challenges.
The competitiveness comes naturally. Trey’s mother, Shelly Pyles Cunningham, still holds the single-season assist record at the University of Alabama, where she was a point guard. His father, Brad, coached football and basketball and his sister, Susan, played women’s basketball at both Alabama and Auburn. Trey’s grandfather, Olan Cunningham, played football at Auburn.
“My family is competitive in every aspect,” he said. “Between my two cousins that I’m super close with, I always looked to see what their scores were compared to mine, even in Monopoly. You had to be competitive in everything. Even running to the trampoline was competitive; always.”
“My family is competitive in every aspect...Even running to the trampoline was competitive; always.”Trey Cunningham on the competitive environment he was raised in
A self-described “nerdy kid” who enjoyed playing video games and reading as a youngster, Trey took up sports in middle school, beginning with basketball, which he played through his junior year at Winfield City High. But his love for track & field quickly developed after following his cousin Olivia Atkinson to practice in seventh grade.
By the time Cunningham was a senior, he was the most highly-touted and collegiately-coveted hurdler in the nation. Yet there was more to his abundant success – 20 individual Alabama state titles (four more on relays) and the U20 World Record for the 60-meter hurdles – than good genes.
Driven, intelligent, humble, fun-loving and seemingly unflappable in the face of adversity, Cunningham carries himself with a maturity that belies his 21 years. And virtually all of those qualities have been on display in his first three years at Florida State.
“He is a lot more like coaching a 30-year-old than coaching a 20-year-old,” said first-year FSU hurdles coach Matt Kane, who spent the previous four years coaching professional athletes,
“He is a lot more like coaching a 30-year-old than coaching a 20-year-old.”First-year FSU hurdles coach Matt Kane
Composure tested; character revealed…over and over, again
On March 12, Cunningham arrived at the Albuquerque Convention Center riding high; ranked No. 1 in the NCAA in the 60-meter hurdles – No. 4 in the World – and unbeaten against collegiate competition. Before his scheduled final workout on the eve of the NCAA Indoor Championships, he had to fulfill a media obligation with ESPN, which comes with the territory when you’re the prohibitive favorite to win an NCAA title.
No stranger in front of the camera, the public relations major deftly fielded questions, knocked out a few promotional “hero poses” to be used on the broadcast, and headed to the floor for what he thought would be a routine pre-meet workout.
Fifteen minutes later, he and his Seminole teammates were rocked by the news that they would not be allowed to compete at the NCAA Championships. It was only then that the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic hit home.
After two years of work while waiting his turn behind Grant Holloway and Daniel Roberts, who finished 1-2 ahead of Cunningham at the 2019 NCAA Indoor Championships in the fastest final in collegiate history, his season was over.
Shelly Cunningham remembers fielding the phone call from her son.
“When he called and told me everything was cancelled, it was pretty fiery,” she said. “It’s the first fiery conversation I’ve had with him in a while about things. I think he realized the importance of everyone doing what they had to do because of all the deaths and what’s going on now.”
Amazingly, Cunningham demonstrated no outward signs of emotion at a time when a number of athletes around the track were moved to tears.
“I’m really aware of how I act around people,” he said. “I don’t let my emotions show on my sleeve most of the time. I’ve always been a really hyper-aware child because I’m the last grandchild…I would hang around the adults and people older than me, so I just listened and learned from them.”
Two weeks later, reflecting on that moment from his home in Winfield, where he is completing his sixth semester at Florida State online, Cunningham opened up.
“It honestly hasn’t really hit me,” he said. “The only thing that affected me personally was it ended my season, which I was very upset about, and that I can’t go see my grandad because he’s in the population that is at risk. It has changed everyone’s life. Every single daily aspect of it has changed. I try not to think about it too much because the sun will rise tomorrow and you’ve got to get up and do it.”
“He got that from his daddy,” Shelly said, referring to her husband, Brad. “His daddy has always been like that. He keeps me calm. He’s the rock of the family. I get real nervous; worry about things. I’m so blessed that Trey got that from him.”
Trey credits his entire family for providing the supportive environment that keeps the highs and lows of life, which are especially plentiful in athletics, in perspective.
“I remember my freshman year (of high school) and the first time I went to New Balance Indoors,” he said. “The whole family was in New York and I didn’t win. I was upset I didn’t win, but I ran pretty well, and they were all hanging out and having fun…We don’t let bad things affect us that much.”
The premature conclusion of the 2020 track & field seasons, including the outdoor season and the long-targeted U.S. Olympic Trials, came on the heels of an outstanding – if not somewhat redemptive – season.
Cunningham, a season-long member of the 10-man watch list for The Bowerman Award – collegiate track & field’s version of the Heisman Trophy – was named the ACC Indoor Track MVP on Wednesday, following a vote of the league coaches. It followed an historic third consecutive ACC 60-meter hurdles title, where he broke his own conference championship record and helped the Noles to their third straight team title.
“I was having so much fun,” said Cunningham, one of three finalists for the USTFCCCA’s National Track Athlete of the Year honors. “I thought it was a great time, every race…I did my normal thing, running around meeting all my friends. This year I was more focused on the race than the end-goal. I was focused on each race, wanting to run as fast as possible. I kept it really simple.”
And running fast wasn’t a problem. He posted 12 times faster than 7.65 seconds, including four sub-7.60 rounds. Twice he broke his Florida State and ACC records, highlighted by a blistering personal-best of 7.51, which came in the finals at the Tiger Paw Invitational.
Ironically, that time came in a loss to Grant Holloway, a first-year pro, and six-time NCAA hurdles champion.
“I knew I was absolutely flying,” said Cunningham, who was closing on Holloway until he whacked the fifth and final hurdle. “That’s why when I looked at the clock I was like, ‘Eh.’”
The Tiger Paw race marked the first time the two had competed since the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, over the summer, where Cunningham advanced to the finals for the second consecutive year. But Holloway won in a prelude to his World Athletics Championships last fall.
Prior to that meeting, Cunningham last lined up against top-notch competition at the 2019 NCAA East Preliminary at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. At the qualifying meet for the NCAA Championships, Cunningham was coming off a hamstring injury that had forced him to sit out the ACC Outdoor Championships and kept him on the shelf for the better part of a month.
Cunningham qualified fifth-fastest in the first round of the 110-meter hurdles, but in the second round – with only the top 12 advancing to the NCAA Championships – the then-sophomore hit two of the final three hurdles and finished 15th.
He would not have an opportunity to improve on his fourth-place NCAA Championships finish as a freshman.
“It was crazy how I did that off basically no practice and coming off being injured,” he said. “I had to run into the bathroom and take off the wrap from my leg so I could go run. I was surprised how fast I ran, too. It didn’t stop me, it was just how quickly they [the hurdles] were coming up and how quickly I had gotten out of shape from being injured. It caught up to me at hurdles 7 and 8 and I couldn’t hold it.”
So while Holloway and Roberts moved on to Austin, finishing 1-2 in an NCAA record-breaking final, Cunningham was left to wonder “What if?”
“I was meant to be in the mix at Austin with the people who were breaking the collegiate record,” he said. “That’s what I thought, and I still think that.”
With the collegiate outdoor season cancelled, and the Olympic Games and Trials postponed until next summer, Cunningham will have to wait to fulfill his dreams and find out exactly how fast he can cover the 110-meter distance.
“It’s been a learning process, to get knocked in the teeth a few times with some of the people who have been doing this for 10-plus years now,” he said. “I’ve learned that I just have to keep working hard. When you put in the work some good things will happen, inevitably.”
Growth extends beyond the lane lines
It took Cunningham some time to come to that realization.
He arrived at Florida State as an honor student, leaning toward a career in medicine – if he didn’t first turn professional in track. After all, there aren’t a lot of World Record-holding freshmen wandering around college campuses, let alone ones that were feted in Monaco during their Thanksgiving break, alongside the greatest track & field athletes in the world at the annual IAAF Awards gala.
“I was just coming in assuming that I was going to run something really fast right off the bat, because I had all these people saying, ‘When are you going to go pro?’” Cunningham said. “Like college was a stepping-stone for me and I was going to be like a one-and-done basketball kid. All that pressure from the World Record didn’t help.”
It didn’t take Cunningham long to figure out that the adjustment from 39-inch hurdles as a high- schooler to the 42-inch collegiate and professional standard wasn’t going to be easy.
“I was at practice and everything was at 42 inches and it was, ‘Oh my goodness, these are high; really high,’” he said with a laugh. “It changed from me coming in as the hotshot to me realizing that I still had work to do to improve. I basically felt like I was in high school again. ‘Oh, we’re back to the drawing board and have to work some more to get back up to where we were,’ which was World Record pace.”
Life changed academically as well.
“Coming in, science was always my favorite subject,” he said. “I could show up in biology class in high school, look over my notes right before the test and make an ‘A,’ no problem. That doesn’t mean the tests were easy. I had a knack for it… In college I had to work at stuff to understand it and apply it on the tests, because the tests were at a different level and they expected us to know more information.”
While Cunningham was never in any academic jeopardy, the challenges of being an elite athlete and an exercise physiology major gave him pause to reconsider.
“I think I changed my major every semester,” he said, laughing aloud. “I came in Ex-Phys, changed to international relations, went back to neuroscience, and now public relations.”
There was a lot of soul-searching through that whole process.
“You’re raised in a middle-class family to think when you’re smart you have to go to a professional school like med school or law school to ‘be successful’ or to ‘make money,’” he said. “It just hit me that I didn’t have to do that to be successful. I didn’t have to be in bio-chem to be considered one of the smartest people in the room. I kind of went with that.”
“You’re raised in a middle-class family to think when you’re smart you have to go to a professional school like med school or law school to ‘be successful’ or to ‘make money.’ It just hit me that I didn’t have to do that to be successful. I didn’t have to be in bio-chem to be considered one of the smartest people in the room. I kind of went with that.”Cunningham on the soul-searching that led him to majoring in public relations
Cunningham was quick to credit Tara Cook, who teaches AP English at Winfield City, for pushing him to excel as a writer. And public relations, with a minor in entrepreneurship, made sense.
He had a chance to explore that career during a summer internship with the nationally-renowned, Tallahassee-based Zimmerman Agency, working with brand management.
In an ironic twist, given the current national health crisis, Cunningham’s interest is also piqued by the Crisis Management aspect of public relations.
“Things change so quickly that you have to be able adjust on the fly, but you also have to be able to stick to a certain set of rules,” he said. “I also think it’s really cool that the use of words, being concise and consistent, can change people’s perception of massive problems.”
It’s not hard to find a tie between the practical application of crisis management and hurdling.
“If you hit hurdle one you have to evaluate. ‘Alright, you’re in this. We’re fine,.’” he said. “Usually that’s the whole mindset when you’re having a sloppy hurdle race, especially if you’re not behind. You just run A-to-B as fast as possible. That’s still the goal of the race.”
And it is an area, among many, where Cunningham excels like few others.
Kane, the FSU hurdles coach, said Cunningham’s target time to the first hurdle is 2.1 seconds, and he’s seen him cover the three steps between the hurdles from anywhere between 0.98 to 1.05 seconds.
“Physically, he has a great ability to make adjustments between the hurdles,” Kane said. “That’s sort of innate in him.”
And that isn’t the only thing that separates him from other elite hurdlers.
“From a mental aspect, he’s grown into being a really good competitor,” Kane added. “He brings that sort of competition to practice every day. He’s learned how to train better and practice better. His intensity has been on 9 or 10 the entire season, and you don’t see that a lot.”
Make no mistake, getting back on the track in competitive mode is Cunningham’s focus, and his growth over three decorated seasons with the Noles has him better prepared for that than ever before.
Shelly Cunningham has seen her son handle adversity with grace and climb to the top of the rankings on multiple levels before. And she has no doubt he will do it again.
“He never did get flustered about a lot of things,” she said. “And he’s a competitor, too. Usually competitors get real upset and angry if they don’t win. He just says, ‘I did good. I did the best I could,’ and he backs it up as an experience and moves on to the next race. I’ve never seen someone that young do that.”
Not many have.