Cunningham hails growing recognition of karate
Female combined martial arts team leader Sheckema Cunningham of Future Leaders Karate, one of the stars of last year's International Sports Karate Association United States Open, was pulled from Jamaica's squad days before the team departed the island last week.
Instead of defending her double gold won in Orlando last year, Cunningham will instead have to follow Jamaica's progress at the biggest martial arts open in the world while she prepares for karate at the Central American and Caribbean Games (CAC), July 25-27, in Barranquilla, Colombia.
Should Cunningham finish among the top two in her division at the CAC Games, the 33-year-old will be an automatic qualifier for the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, where she will have to medal in her bid for a historic qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Cunningham hopes to emulate fellow karateka Kenneth Edwards, who famously represented Jamaica in tae kwon do at the London 2012 Olympics. She has the pedigree, being the first Jamaican female to medal in sparring at the International Taekwon-Do Federation World Championships, winning a bronze in New Zealand 2011.
"If that happens, I would be very elated. It would be a dream come true for karate. We were trying for years to be recognised, as other sports are," said Cunningham, who has been a martial artist for 20 years.
Originally a karate practitioner, who was drafted into the female combined martial arts team by coach Jason McKay, Cunningham stands at 5' 2" and will fight in the -55 kilos category in Colombia.
Though she normally fights lighter and is at risk of facing taller opponents, Cunningham said the height disadvantage has become par for the course.
"At 5' 2", that's always my problem. Whether I am fighting at 109lb or 110lb, I still face persons taller than I am. It's very rare I go to a competition and persons in my division are shorter than I am.
"If it's so, that's it. Subrina (Richards) is almost six feet, and we have her to deal with in local tournaments. I just go in there with the mindset that you train for this, so you've got to do it," she said.