Every once in a while, Christina Cunningham—a fifth grader at Southside School—will wake up her dad, Chris, so they can start working out. What’s unusual about this? Christina is only 10 years old. And Chris is certainly no slouch, as he is a firefighter for the city of San Jose.
But that speaks to the nature of Christina’s precociousness—and why an Olympic-pedigreed coach like Jerry Bradford said she seemingly has all the tools to develop into a future Olympian.
Cunningham, who is coming off a fourth-place finish in her age group in the UCI BMX World Championships in South Carolina, is a top-level factory rider for the Yess BMX team, which employs Bradford as a coach and manager. Bradford has coached a half-dozen Olympians, including Alise Post, who is a two-time Olympian and silver medalist in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I was coaching Alise at the same age Christina is right now,” Bradford said. “There are a lot of similar comparisons going on there, and only time will tell. But as long as Christina loves the sport—and she does—she has a very bright future.”
Bradford, who has a pretty sharp eye for picking out talent, listed several things that Cunningham has working in her favor, including intrinsic motivation, great racing instincts, genetics, and a loving family home.
Cunningham’s parents happen to be physically strong and talented. Although Chris is a firefighter, he said Christina’s athleticism comes from her mom, Maxine, who is a P.E. teacher at San Benito High and a former three-sport standout.
“Christina is definitely naturally gifted like Maxine,” Chris said. “She is ultra motivated, super tough and very passionate about the sport.”
Said Bradford: “Christina has got good genetics. Her mom has a degree in P.E., and her dad was a competitive weight lifter. All that stuff matters. She also trains hard without any issues. She never complains, and so these are all the things you look for in an athlete.”
Chris and Maxine have created a nurturing environment for their daughter to grow at her pace—which just happens to be a fast one. Remember, you’re talking about the same girl who wakes up her dad to work out.
“Christina has the perfect atmosphere,” Bradford said. “She’s got great parents, not some of the parents who can be over the top and basically ruin the child. That’s not the case here. They are firm but loving.”
On the race course, Cunningham makes all the right moves. In BMX racing, the outcome is often determined right out of the gate. Whoever leads off the start has a big advantage because races are chaotic yet controlled sprints, and it’s hard to overtake someone who has gotten out of the gate fast.
“She already explodes (at the start),” Bradford said. “She has a lot of maturity and is a pleasure to work with. She’s very intelligent and takes to coaching well. That’s why she’s got a huge future in the sport—because she understands racing and knows what she’s doing out there. She’s always making smart moves and knows which lines to take in front of her and behind her. She is one of the main reasons why I continue to do this (coaching), because she’s a just a blessing to work with.”
This was Christina’s first time competing in the prestigious UCI World Championships, and the experience turned out to be a fruitful one. It only confirmed what many people already knew—that Cunningham is among the world’s best in her age category.
“I was really happy with my performance,” she said. “I wanted to get out of the gate first, but some of the girls beat me down (the chute).”
Cunningham combines a competitive intensity that is balanced out by her love for the sport. Her favorite part about the World Championships—besides finishing fourth, of course—was meeting other riders from around the world.
“I got to meet a lot of them and learned a lot,” she said.
Cunningham traded jerseys with Australian rider Portia Eden, the 2016 world champion. Cunningham showed a precociousness from an early age—at age 3 no less. That’s when Christina saw all of her dad’s motorcycles in the garage before asking if she could ride one or get into Motocross.
“I’m like no way, but she was persistent,” Chris said. “I told her that she couldn’t even ride a bicycle with training wheels, so at 3 ½ she talked me into taking the training wheels off her bike. I took them off knowing she might take a horrific fall. But after she sprints three or four laps around the Cerra Vista (Elementary School) basketball courts, she says, ‘Let’s go get our motorcycle.’”
Instead, Chris allowed her daughter to get into BMX, and her love for the sport has grown with each passing year. As a factory rider for Yess BMX, Christina gets all of her gear and entry fees paid for. She’s also sponsored by Box, a component company that provides wheels, handle bars, cranks, grips and hubs.
Even though Cunningham excels at BMX, her parents along with Bradford encourage her to do other sports—which she does with joy. Cunningham competes in basketball, gymnastics, softball and triathlons.
Said Bradford: “We’re looking more at the big picture. We encourage her to do other sports because she’s only 10 years old, and it’s important to let her grow into this whole thing. You don’t want to pigeon hole her.”
Cunningham focuses on fast-twitch, plyometric moves like broad jumps, box jumps, one-legged curb jumps and sprints. All of those moves help her explosiveness out of the gate and acceleration during a race. Cunningham is focused on winning this year’s Grand Nationals, which would make her the age group national champion. Next year, Cunningham has a goal to win the World Championships. Down the road, she plans on being an Olympian. Whenever a 10 year old says this, one has to take it with a grain of salt. But Cunningham is no ordinary 10 year old.
“She checks all the boxes on whether she has a future in this sport,” Bradford said. “Everything is looking really good.”