Caden Cunningham interview: Huddersfield taekwondo star giving heavyweight division nightmares on road to Paris 2024 Olympics
Whether it be the pictures on the walls of the great athletes this country has produced down the years - Yorkshire’s own Sarah Stevenson among them - or the new state of the art gym next to the vast aircraft hangar-sized main practice hall that current and future Olympic champions train at, a winning culture fills the senses.
For a young man like Cunningham, it is an awe-inspiring place to go to work.
“In this gym everyone is striving for excellence as opposed to surviving and just getting by,” says Cunningham. “It’s a breeding ground for winners.”
By the age of 20, a large percentage of taekwondo players have already peaked.
Jade Jones was an Olympic champion at 19 and is in a fight with another athlete from Huddersfield in Aaliyah Powell to represent Great Britain in the 57kg at a fourth Games next summer.
Cunningham’s fellow Yorkshireman Bradly Sinden was a world champion at that age. But Cunningham is just getting started. He may have been dedicating his life to taekwondo since he was at high school growing up in Dalton, having taken up the sport at Premier Taekwondo before moving to the Quest club down the A628 in Penistone, but he is by no means a late developer.
If anything, he is ahead of his time. Because Cunningham fights in the 87kg category, the heavyweight division, up with the ‘big boys’ as he calls it.
“I thought I would be a 68kg or potentially an 80kg fighter, because I was quite small through school,” says Cunningham, who couldn’t play football because he lost his temper too easily, so turned to taekwondo and boxing growing up.
“I had confidence issues, and I recognised it was a big journey to get to the top where I am now, but it was around that time I started thinking, I’m not sure what else I would want to do with my life other than taekwondo. I’d always been one to fight at the weight I naturally am, but the second I started putting more weight on and growing naturally I took the decision to bite the bullet and take it up with the big boys.
“I’ve come a long way since moving up to heavyweight last year.”
He certainly has. Despite losing all his previous ranking points for the Paris Olympics because of the category switch, Cunningham has wasted little time in catching up, getting into the top six worldwide and establishing himself as Britain’s No 1.
“I was told repeatedly how heavyweights come into their prime later in life, because you’ve got to mature into a bigger body, so it’s more like 28, 29,” says Cunningham, who moved on to the GB squad in Manchester in July 2019, a month after sitting his GCSE exams.
“But I believe everyone has their prime at different times, and I’m coming to a point where I’m an elite world class heavyweight at the age of 20, so I’m here ready.
“I’ve yet to fight anyone younger than me. The goal has always been the Olympics and I wasn’t comfortable waiting until 2028.”
If ever he needs a bit of guidance, he just has to look around the faces training alongside him in Manchester for advice.
“I speak to Bianca (Walkden) about the Olympic cycle quite a lot, I used to pick Brad’s brains every single session we trained together,” he says. “Just on all sorts: competition, how he deals with his nerves, what he eats on a competition day.
“They’ve always been influences on me.
“It’s hard not being inspired when you’re in a gym full of people who are world champions, when you’re training with people who are the best, where can you go wrong?
“The main thing I have learned from those guys is to find my own identity and figure out what I need to do for myself.”
Their help stood Cunningham in good stead this summer when he went to his first multi-sport championships, the European Games, and won gold.
“I’d just come back from ACL surgery so my knee was still a bit shaky and I’d only competed twice before the Games, so it was up in the air whether I’d be going,” he says.
“So to fight as well as I did - I didn’t lose a single round and conceded just two kicks all day - I felt really good and it was a huge moment and something I’m very proud of.”
Continue his trajectory to Paris and win gold there, and it will be his poster on the walls of the GB taekwondo home inspiring people.