When Cherry Whittaker started playing football aged seven, she didn’t set out to become one of the most influential women in the game in the Cayman Islands. But as time progressed and her skills matured, the game knew and which had become a part of her DNA, remained stagnant. She knew that she would have to be the one to effect change in the sport.
Her journey began in the 1990s when a few like-minded women want to play organised football. By 1994 Whittaker became the driving force in setting up the first Cayman Islands Football Association sanctioned women’s football league. While women played football during the 1970s and 80s, games were mainly for fun and were set up on a five-a-side format. The few organised tournaments were sporadic at best.
Today, people may not realise or appreciate the Herculean task or the sacrifice that Whittaker made in organising women’s football. She had to break down social barriers, including the attitude that football was only for boys or men and that women athletes were less than feminine.
Those were the days before the popularity of the Internet and email communication and Whittaker had to invest much time going from district to district to convince young women who were interested in playing. Then she had to get the Cayman Islands Football Association to sign on to the idea.
“It was difficult at that time. It was a joke for women to play in an organised league. Just a few of us wanted to play. We were tasked with seeking sponsorship for team uniforms,” Whittaker recalls.
The league started with three teams and grew to five a year later.
In September 2002, CIFA formed a Women’s Committee, with Whittaker as Technical Development Coordinator. Other members of the committee were Theresa Goddard, Chairman, Sabrina Leacock, Deputy Chairperson responsible for Marketing and Finance, Patria Wood, Secretary and Nathalee Curtis, who was responsible for competitions.
“My dream was to form a league and to continuing playing and coaching so that one day I would become Cayman’s first female coach,” Whittaker says. “From the time I started playing football seriously, I always found myself being a player-coach. I always took the initiative to talk and correct someone on the field.”
She believes that the sacrifice during the early years has been worth it. “When I see the girls that I coached at primary level and now some of them are off to college and playing excellent football, that makes me very happy.”
Merta Day, Women’s Coordinator at the Cayman Islands Department of Sports, said Cherry Whittaker should be one of the women celebrated during Honouring Women’s Month.
“Her enthusiasm, passion and commitment have paved the way for women’s and girls’ football, leading to the opportunities today’s female footballers have. Her huge effort must be highlighted and her selflessness and determination have had a positive and inspiring impact on football. She is a pioneer for the sport,” she says.
The highlight of Whittaker’s playing career was in the mid-90s when Cayman’s first national women’s squad took on a Brazil national women’s team at the Truman Bodden Sports Complex. “I set up the goal and the game ended in 1-1 draw,” she says.
To fulfill her dream of becoming the first Caymanian national women’s football coach, Whittaker has taken several coaching courses including the CONCACAF Coaching Course (1996), FIFA/Coca-Cola FUTURO I & II (1997), Caribbean Coaching Certificate Programme – Coaching Theory and Sport Leader (2002-2003), Attended the Women’s Symposium, held in Los Angeles in 2003 and a Diploma – Olympic Committee – Female Football Course (2005) held in Guatemala.
Like many athletes in the Cayman Islands, she is not a one-sport athlete. Long before there was a national women’s football squad, she represented her country in netball in 1985 in St Kitts-Nevis. In 2007 she went to England and completed a Netball Level I & II course. More recently her passion is for track and field – she received training to become a starter at the 2010 CARIFTA Games held in Cayman Islands. She has also been an official at track meets where top runners from USA and Jamaica competed.
In the Cayman Islands Whittaker assists with all track and field events as starter.
“Most of all though, I proudly accepted the invitation to be one of the official starters in the CARIFTA Games held in Cayman in 2010.”
Besides being a national footballer, coach of a women’s football team, manager/assistant coach of the national women’s team, she is also a past sports instructor for community football at the Department of Sports.
In 2009 Whittaker was awarded the Order of Merit. When she is not on the track or football field, she enjoys spending time with her family.