Six years ago, they were crying themselves to sleep after being taunted by bullies at school. Now, the only tears shed by Hucknall sisters Josie and Lucie Callan are those of joy after having the last laugh on the bullies in the kickboxing ring.
The journey from gloom to glory has been a remarkable one of determination and dedication by Josie, now 17, and Lucie, now 14. And its reward is global recognition as two of the most gifted and successful kickboxers in the world in their age-groups and weight categories.
Just consider the stats. Josie currently holds two World Kickboxing Association (WKA) titles, a European title, Commonwealth belt, four British titles and two English. She is undefeated in 28 bouts over the last two years.
Lucie currently holds nine gold medals from different world championships, a Commonwealth title, two British belts, two Engliish titles and other national championships.
There’s no more cowering from playground bullies. Instead they march into the kickboxing ring with the belts above their heads and their own theme-tune music reverberating around the room. For Josie, it’s ‘Rockabilly Rebel’ by Matchbox. For Lucie, it’s ‘Run The World’ by Beyonce.
And yet, back in 2009/10, as dad Garry recalled, “they were being bullied so badly, it got to the stage where they were frightened to go to school.
“They were sobbing themselves to sleep, so we had to do something about it,” he said. “I tried talking to teachers, but they were in denial. I tried talking to other parents, but that almost ended in a brawl.”
In desperation, Garry took Josie and Lucie to a boxing club at Wollaton. “They really enjoyed it, and it has gone from there,” he said.
The sisters graduated to kickboxing. Spells at clubs in Sheffield and Newark followed before the girls’ careers took off under renowned coach and professional boxer Matt Hainy, who ran Midlands1Kickboxing, preaching “fun, fitness and discipline”.
As the girls’ confidence boomed, British and English titles were soon garnered. And as their training intensified, Garry even bought a log cabin that he converted into a gym in the back garden of their home.
Next, the Callans moved to the stable of Saxon Kickboxing Academy in Birmingham, run by three-times world champion Tyler Shakespeare. Now the sisters are under the wing of Trojan Martial Arts Academy, based in Walsall, where 26-year-old chief instructor Gavin Burrows has forged a reputation for staging the best international shows.
Since joining Trojan and Burrows, Josie is unbeaten in seven fights, while Lucie has yet to lose in eight, including a British title fight near Belfast last month. “Gavin has taken us to places such as Spain, France and Ireland, where we have won gold medals and belts,” said Garry.
“He believes Josie is the best minus-55kg kickboxer in the country, a real force to be reckoned with. And everyone in kickboxing is talking about the bouts and the shows he puts on at Walsall Football Club’s Bescot Stadium.”
The Bescot is the next port of call on Saturday, August 6 for the sisters as Josie tackles French girl Jade Jorand for a vacant World Ring Sports Association (WRSA) title, while Lucie fights another French challenger for a European championship.
To prepare for the big fights, the girls face an intense six-week training camp. It is not unusual for Lucie to get up at 6 am, go for a two-mile run before a full day at school (now Holgate Academy) and then return for more training in the evening.
“We give them Saturdays off to go and do what they like,” said Garry, who is a former boxer himself and fought while he was in the Army between 1979 and 1983. “But otherwise, they train six days a week to keep them ticking over.
“People don’t realise how much work has to go into reaching the standard they are at. But the results make it all worthwhile.
“A typical three-hour night might include a one-mile run, a one-mile sprint and jog mix, a Focus T25 cardio/strength workout and 45 minutes sparring in the boxing ring. They have also been weightlifting at JR’s Olympia gym on Watnall Road to build up their upper body-strength.”
A little bit further up Watnall Road is where the Callan family home lies, on the site of the former Rocking Horse Day Nursery. The log-cabin has developed into a fully fledged gym as part of an extension to the house. Properly lit, heated and even air-conditioned, it is far removed from some of the spit-and-sawdust, rough-and-ready gyms endured by many kickboxers.
A wall of the gym, smothered by all the belts the girls have won, is testament to the extraordinary number of hours of effort devoted by all the family. Doubly extraordinary because dad Garry and mum Lynn also run a successful business, the Orchard Care Home on Papplewick Lane, and the sisters are still in education.
Lucie takes her GCSE exams next year, while Josie is studying coaching and personal training at Central College, Clifton, where she has just been named sportswoman of the year. “She is really excelling,” said Garry. “Tennis is one of the sports she coaches. She has met Andy Murray and has been to Wimbledon.”
Kickboxing remains her first love, though, and such has been the Callan sisters’ dominance of the sport that tales abound of other highly regarded fighters refusing to get in the same ring as them and of some opponents claiming to be much younger than they actually are.
The only fighter much younger than them who they care about is their little brother Kyle, now ten. Eerily, he has also been the victim of bullying. “But when I went to the school (Broomhill Junior) to talk to them about it, they sorted it within an hour,” said Garry.
“Considering what happened before with Josie and Lucie, I was so impressed with what they did. I cannot praise the school highly enough.”
Whether it will also inspire Kyle into a successful career of kickboxing is another matter. He has won lots of bouts and also has his own theme-tune, ‘Speedy Gonzalez’, which reflects the way he fights. But dad Garry wonders if he’s aggressive enough to fully make the grade
“He’s a black belt, knows all the moves and is very skilful,” Garry said. “When he lets it go, he’s like a whirlwind and has even been known to do the Ali Shuffle during his fights.
“But he’s more of a lover than a fighter. He’s such a nice child. In ten years, I can’t remember telling him off once. He doesn’t argue, he isn’t mischievous and he’s never naughty, so I’m beginning to question myself as to whether I’ve done the right thing by encouraging him to take up the sport.”
Time will tell on that one. Kyle will, no doubt, find his true niche one day. As for Josie and Lucie, they know exactly where their niche is. In the kickboxing ring that has allowed them not only to travel the world but also to conquer the world. Tell that to the bullies.