A WEST Lothian woman is celebrating after smashing the glass ceiling in the male-dominated world of the martial art Taekwon-do and becoming Europe’s first – and only the world’s second – female 9th Degree Grand Master.

Sheena Sutherland, from Bathgate, has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years and is well respected as an examiner, umpire and instructor, as well as a world-level competitor.

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In her early competitive career, Taekwon-do had no separate female division – that didn’t come until 1978 – and she was faced with the dilemma of sit out a tournament or compete against her male counterparts.

She told The National: “If I was to achieve any credibility in this male dominated-world, I had to at least attempt everything that was expected of my male counterparts.

“Never being one to sit on the fence, I took the decision to take part in all disciplines. I was successful and won gold in patterns at every level, competed in male sparring and reached the finals of the male blue belt power test in the Scottish Championships 1976. My highest accolade at mixed competition was winning silver in Black Belt pattern at the first Open International 1977 in Edinburgh.”

The 59-year-old says she is overjoyed at her promotion to the 9th degree, but admits it was a long time coming.

“It should have happened ages ago,” she said. I think women are overlooked for a start. They [International Taekwon-do Federation, ITF] knew I wouldn’t be happy to be overlooked and they thought I would just take it being a female, but that’s not happened. And the support I’ve had has been amazing. I am so chuffed.

“There is a petition on the go just now, but the promotion should have happened two years ago. They never answered my emails or calls and I think they thought I would just go away – but this is our martial art, it belongs to all of us.”

Korean General Choi Hong Hi, the man seen as the founder of Taekwon-do, died in 2002, which triggered a growth in various factions and splinter groups worldwide. Sutherland says it was the US Taekwon-do Federation (USTF) that helped overcome the impasse over her promotion.

“Taekwon-do pioneer and Senior Grand Master Charles Sereff of the USTF saw fit to award me with this – I didn’t apply for it – he felt strongly enough that it was wrong I hadn’t been given it and he presented me with this 9th degree and it’s amazing that somebody like him would feel the need to correct things.”

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When the senior instructor at the Bathgate Taekwon-do Institute moved to Vienna in 1984, he was reluctant to elevate Sutherland to the vacant position, fearing that men would not train under a woman.

However, she says: “I convinced him I could do it and the 35 students I inherited at the time have become 250 today.

“I have had great enjoyment whilst teaching in Bathgate over the years, working with great athletes such as world champions Brent Lyon and Julia Cross.”

In her time in the sport, Sutherland has travelled the world, and even managed to strike a blow for Scottish independence. She says: “I gained independence for Scotland in 1997. We were classed as a UK organisation and I had a team of 15 fighters to take around Europe and the world. We were winning everything but we couldn’t get selected because we had to travel down to the likes of Kent, and people from the likes of Inverness were having to travel down in a day and back in a day.

“So, after many letters and meetings that year I was successful and received a fax I still have today, from Vienna and General Choi who gave his consent for us to become a separate entity, and ITF Scotland was born.”

After reaching the pinnacle of her career, Sutherland says there is still work to do: “With the general now gone, the seniors who are left, including myself, equate to hybrids, albeit many of us taught by the general himself.

“With only five per cent of the world’s population practising martial arts, as long as we all follow the tenets, there are enough people in the world who have not yet discovered Taekwon-do – enough for all of us.”