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Island Park teen has Olympic aspirations

National karate champion heads to Pan Ams

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Nicholas Yika-Cuadra, of Island Park, took a step toward his dream of representing the United States in the Junior Olympics last month when he became a national champion and qualified to compete for Team USA in the Pan American Karate Championships, which take place later this month in Ecuador.

“It was a big relief after all these hard weeks of training before the nationals, and it was a big relief to know that it all paid off,” said Nicholas, 15, who is ranked No. 12 in the world in his division by the World Karate Federation. “This just means that I have to train harder and it’s a lot more serious now, and I’m taking it more seriously.”

It was a long road to qualifying for Nicholas, who is preparing for his junior year at Long Beach High School in the fall. After taking part in a series of statewide tournaments and finishing in the top seven in each one, he advanced to the USA Karate National Championships in Chicago in July, a tournament that had 2,500 competitors. Nicholas won three rounds at the 70-kilo (about 154 pounds) weight class, to earn a gold medal and become national champion in the 14- and 15-year-old division. Only the top two finishers in each weight class at the nationals advance to the Pan American tournament, which is scheduled for Aug. 27-31. Nicholas will also take part in the World Karate Federation Championships Junior Cadet tournament in Chile in October. Each of these tournaments provide him with an opportunity to earn points to increase his ranking and his chances of reaching the Junior Olympics in Dakar in 2022.

Twice a day, six days a week, he trains with Sensei Steven Alleyne at Steven’s Karate Academy in East Rockaway. Alleyne recalled that when Nicholas began training with him four years ago, he was the slowest participant. “He couldn’t do any of the athletic drills, agility drills, couldn’t jump as high, couldn’t kick and wasn’t strong,” Alleyne recounted. “Now he’s one of the best students I have.”

Alleyne attributed Nicholas’s turnaround to his hard work and dedication, and added that he was an underdog who overcame adversity through perseverance. Nicholas usually goes to the dojo at midday for cardiovascular fitness sessions. He returns in the evening and hits the mat to hone his technique with Alleyne. During the school year, he wakes up at 5 a.m. to run. Nicholas specializes in Shotokan karate, a type of Japanese-style combat.

He said he became interested in karate as a youngster, when he wanted to emulate what he saw in karate movies. “It looked cool, and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to try this one day,’” he said. “And I tried it. It’s nothing like you see in the movies. They’re completely different things, but it’s amazing.”

Though he has been competing for five years, Nicholas said he is often stressed when he enters tournaments because he worries too much about what other people are saying or thinking about him and his performance. He added that he tries to block it out. It is also difficult to stay away from his friends, he said — especially during the summer — while he focuses on training and traveling for tournaments.

“It’s been hard and I haven’t been seeing my friends lately, but they understand,” he said. “That’s how I know they’re real friends. They understand that this is my dream and this is what I want to keep doing, so they live with it.”

Nicholas’s mother, Carla Cuadra-Eye, said she is even more stressed about his tournaments than her son. “I’m always nervous,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how small the tournament is or how big. I can’t eat that day. It’s like butterflies in your stomach, but I try to stay calm for him.”

Cuadra-Eye said she was nervous at the nationals, but relieved the stress through cheering when her son won the tournament. “We were very excited,” she said. “His fight was at 7:30 a.m., and we were half asleep, but when he made it, we were all jumping. Everybody was crying.”

She will be anxiously watching in Ecuador, Cuadra-Eye said. Nicholas’s father, Frank Eye — the Island Park Fire Department chief — cannot attend, she added, but their son, Noah, 2, and her mother, Gladys Cuadra, who lives in Peru, will be there.

Nicholas said his younger brother is his inspiration. “I know that I’m doing this for my country and all the people that have supported me so far, and one of the big things that keeps me going is my littler brother,” he said. “I just want to be a good role model for him, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Nicholas is also a strong student, and has made the high honor roll every quarter since fifth grade, which includes his time at Francis X. Hegarty Elementary School and Lincoln Orens Middle School in Island Park. He was also a member of the Junior National Honor Society and the National Honor Society. Alleyene said he has instilled the importance of doing well in school in Nicholas.

Alleyne said he wasn’t surprised that his protégé advanced to the Pan Am championships, and believes he could make it to the Olympics someday. “You can’t teach somebody to work hard and want something, but it’s something that just comes from within,” he said. “It’s what he wanted to do. His dream was to make the tournament, which he did. Now his next dream is to get the gold medal.”

Alleyene said it is rare for a brown belt to compete in the Pan Am tournament, but Nicholas overcame the odds. He will test for his black belt in October. Nicholas said he hoped the Pan Am competition would launch him toward the 2022 Olympics, and that he was pleased that karate had given him a chance to tour the world.

“Going around and seeing the world is what I love,” he said. “I want to reach the Olympics, and I want to represent my country.”