Jamaica’s Paralympic champion Cunningham reinvents himself as a multi-sport champion

Alphanso Cunningham isn’t always immediately sure who he is when he first wakes up.

Is he the 41-year-old basketball player hoping to play for Jamaica at this summer’s Commonwealth Games, or is he the para-table tennis player feverishly training for his first major international competition? Or is he maybe a wannabe wheelchair fencer who falls in love with another sport? Or is he even Alphanso Cunningham, the two-time Paralympic track and field champion?

The answer is he is them all.

“I love sport. I’ve tried everything,” laughed Cunningham before revealing why the man who won the F53 Paralympic Games discus title in Athens 2004 and gold in the F52/53 javelin in London 2012 , which has left field events far behind.

“My body told me no to the field events. I’m 18, 19, 20 years (field events) behind me and my body needed that change. So I switched. I wanted to show my talent in different areas that I knew I was good at.”

After two decades in field sports, Cunningham was ready to try his hand at other sports. @Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images

In love with basketball from a young age and always fascinated by the lightning-fast nature of table tennis, the first two “areas” he needed to focus on were obvious. The third a little less.

“Fencing is new to me and I kinda like it,” Cunningham said, laughter back in his voice. “I like sword fighting. I’ll be 42 this year and right now I feel like 22.”

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Win like dad

There’s another important reason why teenage Cunningham doesn’t spend time off from his job as an orthotist on one of Jamaica’s famous beaches.

“I was about to retire but she likes to see me on TV and I promised her I’d get her a medal,” Cunningham said of his six-year-old daughter.

“So she’s always like, ‘When will I get one of your medals?’ She likes to watch her father on TV and she likes to watch me sometimes when I work out.

“I want to encourage her because she wants to be a winner like her father. So I will continue until she gets full understanding. She is good at school. She recently won her first medal, her first trophy; She came first in her spelling. I said to her, ‘This is a start.’”

power of sport

The power of sport is something Cunningham, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a congenital condition characterized by brittle bones, is acutely aware of and grateful for.

“Exercise (has) pushed me to become a better person. It taught me, inspired me and made me inspire another generation,” he said. “I realized that sport can change your life. I can’t sing, I’m not a musician. People try other things to inspire themselves, and people and I chose exercise.”

His achievements on the athletics field, which include a World Championship gold medal and four Parapan American titles, as well as those Paralympic crowns, certainly have. As has his efforts to reinvent himself as a champion of multiple sports. It’s no wonder, then, that people across Jamaica, from school children to grandparents, appreciate this ever-smiling phenomenon.

“I’m not worried about my disability because sport has changed that and I want to change the lives of other people, not just the disabled people but the able-bodied,” Cunningham said. “As I walk down the street, I meet people and[they say]’You know you’ve inspired me even though I can walk.’ I use that as a driving force to educate the people of my country.”

Jamaica’s first National Paralympic Day, held on March 11, was an opportunity Cunningham took advantage of to do just that.

“I am pleased that we are having a Paralympic Day in Jamaica so that all eyes can be on the Paralympics and people with disabilities,” said Cunningham after spending part of the day helping with the renovation of the Paralympics Multipurpose Court at the Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Center in Jamaica.

“To let people know, ‘Yes, we have people who, despite having a physical disability, have a day to express themselves and their sport.’ It wasn’t that big because it was my first time here in Jamaica, but we know next year will be bigger and I will help.”

It’s no surprise to hear that from a man who shows no signs of slowing down.

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