AT FIRST BLUSH, Trey Cunningham seems less than thrilled with his banner indoor campaign, one that saw him go undefeated against collegians and destroy the NCAA 60H field with a blazing 7.38, a time bettered only by one other collegiate athlete in history.
“It was pretty nice,” he says, but clarifies, “I wouldn’t say ‘perfect.’ That wouldn’t be the adjective I’d use. I did lose one race. But personally, I think it went pretty well. I mean I PB’ed basically every race and continued to get better. But I think it just shows the work I’ve put in in previous years and it’s finally coming to fruition.”
That loss was to WR holder and soon-to-be World Indoor gold medalist Grant Holloway, who remains the holder of the CR at 7.35. Cunningham, obviously, would have rather won that matchup: “I always want to win. That’s always the goal, to win. It’s not so much about the PR or running the second-fastest in college history. It’s about getting the win. That’s all people care about and they’ll remember you for.”
At 23, the Florida State senior evinces a desire to make his mark. His first NCAA title was a long time coming, after he came to Florida State already owning the World Junior (U20) Record over the shorter hurdles at 7.40. His frosh year he finished 6th at the NCAA indoors and 4th outdoors, topping out at 13.57. As a soph he improved to 13.47, taking 3rd indoors and not making it to the line outdoors after dealing with an injury and slamming a hurdle at Regionals.
The pandemic crashed his ’20 campaign after he ran an indoor PR of 7.51 behind Holloway. Then last year, he ran 3rd at NCAA Indoor and once again didn’t make it to the outdoor meet, this time due to injury.
Winning his first NCAA crown, he says, felt, “Bittersweet. There was release. I finally got it done after 4 or 5 years. I attribute that to being brought up in the best hurdle field in the history of the sport. I was just excited to get it done. The moment was phenomenal. I got to do it in front of a home crowd, I had probably 50-plus family and friends there to watch, because it’s my home state.
“Outside of that, it was kind of expected as well, because of the times I’ve been running all year and the expectations that I have on myself and my coach has for me, not just to be good at the college level but great on the world stage.”
That world stage is one he feels he missed out on last year, with a hamstring injury costing him the NCAA appearance and coming just weeks before the OT. Yet he recovered fast enough that he still competed at the Trials, “running on 1⅔ hamstrings”. He showed what might have been, PRing in every round: 13.23, 13.21, 13.21. That final flight left him in 4th, a 10th away from the Tokyo squad.
“I was just so happy to be there,” he says. “I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to make it all 10 hurdles, because the day before the prelims was the first day I was able to hurdle again. Then the prelim went pretty well, so I was like, ‘We’re ready to run.’”
Did the Eugene sequence, with the three fastest performances of his career, surprise Cunningham? “Yes and no,” he says. “I’m expected to run fast. It comes with the territory of being who I am, but I hadn’t went over a hurdle in a month, so I was just excited to make it down the track.”
He returned from the Trials in good spirits and the hamstring hasn’t given him any trouble since. “My medical team got it right.” Working with Seminole assistant Matt Kane, he says not a lot changed in his training over the winter. “We just kinda picked up the intensity a little bit. We didn’t reinvent the wheel.
“We’ve just been sticking to our guns, how I hurdle better than most people from hurdles 3 to 8. Grant [Holloway] is the best at the first 5, and Devon [Allen] is the best closer. We’re just kind of maximizing what I’m the best at, and minimizing some of the worst parts of my race. I’ve just been focused on having fun with it.”
The prospects for a blazing outdoor campaign are all in place. “If you look historically, nearly every person who’s ever broken into the 7.30s has broken into the 12s at least once [8/12 have],” he says. “So it’s there. I just have to put it together. Outdoors has more variables, like weather, and 5 more hurdles and all that jazz. So I’ll try to put it together like I did indoors and we’ll see what happens.”
Never having taken a season past outdoor nationals, Cunningham says he and Kane have planned what will likely turn into his first campaign as a pro. That means starting later this spring. “We’re planning on running until September,” he explains. “So we’ve adjusted just a little bit to make sure I can last that long. World Championships are definitely the big picture. And then beyond that, it’s just icing on the cake.”
The path to the hurdles seemed a natural one to Cunningham, who describes his start by saying, “I followed my cousin out to the track one day and I just kinda stuck with it.” His elementary school was next to a track, and at recess he would find himself jumping over the hurdles. “Not actually hurdling,” he clarifies, “I was jumping.”
He explains his progression in sports and beyond: “I’m very competitive in all aspects of my life. I’m more than just a hurdler. I’m writing a thesis when I could have just done an easy cop-out.” Already graduated with a degree in Public Relations, he is working on a graduate degree in Sports Management.
During the pandemic, he used his extra time to pursue painting. “I just like doing things that make me happy and learning about people, being around people and performing makes me happy.
“I don’t try to be mediocre in anything. I tell people I’m all the way out or I’m all the way in. I try to be excellent in all of what I do.”