When the Jamaica Combined Martial Arts Team arrived at Queens College for an international taekwondo match last month, they were asked not about martial arts, but about the fastest man in the world who is also from Jamaica.
"Do you know Usain Bolt?" said Phillip McDowell, 28, talking about the most asked question by international audiences. "They want to meet him."
The questions about Bolt were a reminder of the power of one athlete to shine a spotlight on a country. The Jamaican martial arts team gets asked the question just because they wear their country's signature colors, black, green and gold. But among them, there were some champions too.
There was Kenneth Edwards, 27, who placed fifth in the Olympics last year, the first time ever for Jamaica in taekwondo. Edwards has helped lead his team to 50 undefeated wins internationally traveling to 30 countries. He did not compete last month because he was recuperating from a foot injury. Following closely in Edwards' steps on the Jamaican team, is Nicholas Dussard, 24, the world Pan Am gold medalist. Dussard defeated former International Taekwondo Federation champion, Emanuel Carlos, to win gold, but a new young athlete from Jamaica also emerged as a contender.
Ashieka Dyer, a 19-year-old first-degree black belt, captured the silver medal in the female lightweight division. The win came as the Jamaican team participated in the New York International Taekwondo Federation tournament, at Queens College, in Flushing, New York, on September 29th. The 18th annual competition included 381 competitors from 34 International Taekwondo Federation schools, from across the U.S. as well as Canada, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Columbia.
Dyer's win was all the more surprising because she and her teammates barely got any sleep the night before the tournament. They left Jamaica at 2 a.m. and then headed straight from Kennedy Airport to Queens College for the tournament.
Barely awake in the stands and trying to get rest on the gym's wooden benches while spectators cheered for their favorite athlete, Dyer and her teammates talked strategy for the tournament. Their team jackets, which prominently displayed Jamaica's colors stood out among a sea of traditional white martial arts gi uniforms.
Taekwondo (pronounced ty-KWAHN-doe) originated in Korea and practitioners fall into two major categories, International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) and World Taekwondo Federation (WTF). In 1980, the International Olympic Committee recognized WTF as an Olympic sport. Each sparring match has three rounds, which last three minutes, with opponents scoring points by kicking with the ankle or hitting with the fist to designated parts of the body above the waist. Its signature move is the powerful roundhouse kick. The roundhouse kick is distinguished by the swinging of a leg in a semi-circular movement utilizing either the front of the leg or foot. When executed correctly it can cause a knockout, usually by striking the opponents' chin.
Over the last three decades, taekwondo has steadily grown in popularity in Jamaica, according to the national team's traveling coach Jason McKay, 46, a taekwondo Master, which means he holds a seventh degree black belt.
"I'd say looking on the scale now, Jamaica would be ranked right up there with Argentina and Poland, the top three fighting countries in the ITF," said McKay. McKay is a senior member of the Jamaican Martial Arts Association. He recruited Edwards to be on the national Jamaican team, as well taekwondo Master Alvin Bernard to help with coaching.
Bernard, a native Jamaican himself was a coach on the U.S. National Team for several years. His dojang, (Korean martial arts studio), is nestled between Korean shops, in Ft. Lee, N.J., an area long known for its Korean immigrant community.
His modest one room martial arts studio, its mirrored walls lined with heavy bags for punching and kicking drills, has become a second home to Edwards and Dussard as they prepare for their next round of matches, but also a place of interest for local Jamaicans excited by the team's success.
"I think since Kenneth qualified for the Olympics I've seen a big change in how people look at martial arts all over the world. I mean [when] we travel; these guys are like super stars. It's funny, they're much bigger overseas, than they are in Jamaica," said Bernard.
"How's your cardio," asked Edwards, as a song by Katy Perry played in the background.
"Low, very low," a winded, out of breath, Neco Williams, 21, responded after sparring a few minutes with Edwards in Bernard's dojang.
Percival Williams moved with his two sons, including Neco, from Kingston, Jamaica, in 2005. He enrolled Neco into a Brooklyn martial arts studio after the family moved.
When Percival and Neco, found out former Olympian Kenneth Edwards and rising star Nicholas Dussard would be in the U.S. for a few months to continue their taekwondo training, he called in favors from friends to help connect him with the athletes. "I can't explain it, can't really express it, we're proud. It gives a sense of pride. Seeing our country and our young men and women represent us, it's excellent," said Williams, watching his son and Edwards on the mat.
Neco Williams, a computer science major at Middlesex County College, wants to follow in Edwards and Dussard's footsteps and also compete. Despite towering over Edwards, his imposing muscular build was no match for the skilled martial artist.
"Normally, when I'm free sparring with my opponents I'm able to read them correctly and as I read them, I'm able to plan which kicks, which tact to make, which movement to make, in order to succeed in free sparring. But today while I was trying to land, think and react, I wasn't able to pinpoint exactly what my opponent was doing, therefore I got hit a couple times... not used to getting hit," said Williams.
Kenneth Edwards began studying martial arts as a child. At the time his older brother was a karate instructor. A third degree black belt in karate and practitioner of both ITF and WTF styles of taekwondo, Edwards described WTF as "mostly kicking, 95 percent kicking." Edwards said that he embraced taekwondo to escape life on the dangerous streets, of his inner city community in Jamaica.
"Taekwondo in definition means 'the way of the hand and foot,'" Edwards said. "When a developing sport like martial arts can, you know, give a kid the discipline that he would never experience in the home or in his community that speaks volumes for the man that that kid will become. It's not a sport but a way of life that has deep rooted tenants that [we] pretty much live by."
At the Queens College competition, Edwards helped coach Merissa Pico, as well as fellow teammate Ashieka Dyer to her second place win. Both are young women who are blazing a trail for up and coming female taekwondo competitors. "He told me to stay relaxed... it's a local tournament, so the stakes aren't too high, so just helpful reminders," said Pico, 18, about Edwards' advice before her match.
Both Pico and Edwards train with Master Bernard when they are in New Jersey. Pico, who was born in China, and adopted by an American woman from New Jersey, served as a second alternate on Team USA during the 2012 Olympics. The college freshman is studying Communications at Boston University and had to immediately return to school after her first round win.
Besides Dyer, Phillips, Edwards and Dussard, all adult black belts, also at the competition last month were four-color belt or junior members from the Jamaica Combined Martial Arts team, including 14-year old green belt Alana Bailey.
"I'm nervous about not winning," said Bailey as she sat on the floor, stretching with Dussard. Her match marked her first visit to New York and participation in her first international tournament.
"Whatever you do, don't spin too much," said Dussard while strapping her into her helmet and placing a protective plastic bite plate in her mouth.
"She's pushing," yelled a woman to the referees, about Alana's opponent. "Just 'tump (thump) her," the Jamaican woman shouted to Alana, as Corelene Bailey, Alana's mother, stood frozen watching her daughter take multiple shots to the head.
"She's a tough girl," said Bailey after her daughter walked away with a trophy. "You never want to see either opponent getting hurt, but very happy when she wins."
Edwards, Dussard and the rest of the black belts on the Jamaican team have now turned their attention to their next major tournament, the ITF World Championship, being held this week in Benidorm, Spain. At least a thousand competitors from more than 60 countries are expected to participate.
"I need to see where I'm at compared to these other fighters from other countries," said Dussard, "if I win [then] maybe I'm doing something right and I need to continue that and see how much better I can get ... if I lose I'll have something to look on and know what I need to work on."
"The talent is there," said Master McKay, "volleyball for example, [if Jamaica] was to put the same resources behind it like we put behind martial arts, we would have one of the best volleyball teams in the world too."
If the Jamaican team realizes its potential, black, green and gold colors may someday signify not only speed but also excellence in taekwondo.