Cunningham hopes to break US Open drought
SHECKEMA CUNNINGHAM, the country's most decorated female martial artist, is tasked with ensuring Jamaica open the International Sports Karate Association US Open with a bang in Orlando, Florida, next Thursday.
Cunningham, 30, captains a three-member team of female fighters, who will be first on the mat for Jamaica at the July 2-4 tournament, taking on Germany, South Africa and Chile in the Gold Cup, a round-robin team-fighting contest.
Whereas Jamaica's male fighters have dominated the Gold Cup, going unbeaten against the best teams in the world since 2010, the females have never lifted the trophy, losing to Puerto Rico last year.
Cunningham, however, is confident she has the team to return home with the Gold Cup from the world's biggest martial arts open. She will line up alongside back-to-form Tashauna Grannum and the much-improved Subrina Richards.
"I think this year we have a better chance. We have the strongest three girls from the squad. Tashauna has never fought Gold Cup. She had some back problems, but I believe she is over that now.
"She went to South Africa, the International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) African Nations Cup, and won gold there. She was the lone female at the ITF World Champs in Italy, where she advanced to second round and only lost by a point, showing just how ready she is," Cunningham pointed out.
Richards, a 19-year-old Merl Grove sixth-former, has been Jamaica's most-improved fighter for the last two seasons, winning lightweight silver at last August's ITF World Cup in Montego Bay.
The lanky fighter travelled to Portugal this year, where she won the gold at the International Sports Kickboxing Association's World Champs. She, however, missed the ITF Worlds due to exam obligations.
Cunningham has been the least active of the trio, missing from the international circuit due to injury and competing in one local tournament this season, the Shaitai Kickboxing Open.
Her form and ability to lead under pressure will be put to the test against international fighters, whom she has no statistics on.
"Internationally, especially the Gold Cup, you never know who you are going to fight, their styles, nothing. You just have to go and put in what you learn in training. I am not worried about having not fought internationally this year," she said.
Cunningham made world headlines in 2011 when she became the first black female to medal at the ITF World Champs in New Zealand. That year, she also won an internationally televised bout at the US Open's Night of Champions, fighting to an audience of millions on ESPN.