Meet the teenagers who have combined their college studies with punching, kicking and grappling their way to martial arts glory!
Between them, West Nottinghamshire College students Molly Cooper, Annalea Bearder, Holly Felton, Jack Kelly and Charlie Young boast a string of world, European and national championship titles at elite-level – while two of them are also in contention for the Olympics.
Kickboxer Molly Cooper, 16, from Kirkby-in-Ashfield, has established herself as one of the top female fighters in the world, thanks to a stunning combat record that has seen her claim more than 40 titles.
A multi-times world champion, Molly also currently holds both the light continuous and points titles gained at the WAKO (World Association of Kickboxing Organisations) British National Championships 2019.
In March she bagged a trio of titles at the Irish Open International – billed as the largest and most prestigious kickboxing tournament in the world – where she claimed two trophies in the women’s category and one in the junior category. More recently, in April, Molly won four belts at the WAKO Austrian Classics Kickboxing World Cup 2019, defending her gold titles in the women’s light contact, junior light contact, junior kick light, and junior points categories which she won the previous year.
Molly, who is a black belt second dan, said: “I felt very proud to come away with four titles, especially as I’m now also competing in the women’s categories, where the standard of the opposition is so high. Adult fighters have a lot more experience, because they’ve been competing for longer, so it’s good to test myself against such strong and tactical opposition.
“Rather than feel daunted, I have the mentality to think ‘You may be bigger than me but I’ll beat you anyway.’ From a young age, I’ve had a determination to win all the titles I possibly can.”
Other championship-wins included the Bristol Open, the Scottish Open, and the WKKC (World Kickboxing Karate Championships).
When she isn’t representing England on the international stage, Molly trains with ex-world champion Owen King at the Fighter Training Performance Centre, Nottingham.
The versatile fighter, who has been kickboxing since the age of five, also took up taekwondo last year and was soon invited by GB Taekwondo to join its development squad, with a chance of being selected for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. This sees her attending fortnightly training sessions at the National Taekwondo Centre in Manchester along with fellow Olympic hopefuls.
Fellow kickboxer Annalea Bearder is the current undisputed ISKA (International Sport Karate Association) amateur world champion and the WMO (World Martial Arts Organisation) British champion in the 13-17 years and 13-16 years categories respectively.
The 17-year-old, from Hucknall, has enjoyed success in a host of tournaments and hopes to add to her medal haul at the ISKA World Championships in Cork, Ireland, in October; followed by the WMO World Championships in Blackpool, in November.
Annalea took up the sport six years ago after being bullied as a child. Now a black belt second dan, she trains with Pro Martial Arts Schools at its bases in Hucknall, Mansfield and Spalding, Lincolnshire. She credits her instructors with her proudest achievement to date – being crowned world champion at the ISKA Amateur World Championships at Montego Bay Convention Centre, Jamaica, in September 2018.
Meanwhile, Holly Felton competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and has progressed to purple belt, training with Five Rings Grappling Academy in Mansfield and Sheffield.
After taking up the sport five years ago, the 18-year-old has won numerous titles including two gold medals in the BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu) Junior National Championships, a gold and silver in the BJJ Junior European Championships, and a bronze in the IBJJF (International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation) European Championships.
In May she bagged gold and bronze medals in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu British Open, held at Birmingham NCC, where she has won gold in four out of the last five years – maintaining her status as the country’s top jiu-jitsu fighter in her weight and belt classification.
Holly, from Sutton-in-Ashfield, combines jiu-jitsu with her other sporting passion, rugby, which she has played since the age of five. Holly represents Ashfield Rugby Club and Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire Rugby Football Union (NLDRFU), where she plays as a prop for their under-18s and ladies’ sides. She also trains at Loughborough University as part of England Rugby’s Centre of Excellence.
Explaining how Brazilian jiu-jitsu has benefitted her, Holly said: “I’ve got autism and needed something else to concentrate my mind other than rugby, so I thought I’d give it a try.
“Competing at elite-level gives me a real challenge. It means I’ve got a reason to train and strive to improve. Even if I don’t win, I never see it as a loss – I see it as an opportunity to learn.
“I’m really pleased with what I’ve achieved so far. It shows that having a disability shouldn’t stop you from achieving what others can.”
Jack Kelly, who practices judo, has won gold, silver and bronze medals in a host of regional tournaments since first competing at the age of nine. More recently, he has seen success in national tournaments, having won bronze in the BJC (British Judo Council) Open National Championships for three successive years – 2017, 2018 and 2019 – with the most recent coming in May. He also won a gold in the Kata Open 2016, a silver in the BJC Closed National Championships in 2017, followed by a bronze in the same tournament in 2018.
Jack hopes to be selected to compete in the International Den Helder Open Judo Championships in Holland in November for the second successive year, representing Team BJC.
He was inspired to take up judo by his father Ian, who has also competed in the sport since being a child. The 17-year-old, from Warsop, represents Ollerton Judo Club and also trains at Ryecroft Judo Club – one of the leading clubs in the East Midlands – in Beeston, Nottingham.
Jack currently holds a brown belt – and insists that achieving it last October was the highlight of his fighting career-to-date.
“As soon as you reach green belt with the British Judo Council you have to fight to achieve your next grade,” explained Jack. “For my brown belt I had five fights. I won four of them and lost one. They were hard bouts against grown men a lot heavier than me, so beating them and moving up a grade felt great.”
Another fighter aiming to qualify for the Olympics is fellow judo practitioner Charlie Young, 17 – a multi-time British champion in various age categories.
The teenager, from Alfreton, Derbyshire, started training as a five-year-old and has represented Ryecroft Judo Club, Beeston, since the age of eight. He also trains at the Alliance Derby martial arts school.
Since turning to competition, black belt Charlie has won numerous tournaments including the BJA (British Judo Association) British Championships, British Cadet Championships, English Cadet Open, Sportif International, Heart of England Championships, Welsh Open, and Scottish Open.
In 2017 he represented Team GB at the Gyor European Youth Olympic Festival in Hungary, joining over 2,500 athletes from 50 nations competing in 10 sports over six days – coming a highly-creditable fifth in the judo competition.
Charlie has subsequently been selected to join the GB Junior Elite Development Squad (EDS), aimed at developing the nation’s best young athletes for the 2024 Paris Olympics. As part of the EDS programme, Charlie will have the opportunity to train in domestic camps at the British Judo Centre of Excellence and compete across Europe in some of the toughest junior competitions on the circuit.
Charlie’s fighting career has already seen him compete in a host of countries, which he says is one of the main rewards of training so hard.
He said: “I’ve fought in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Italy, Turkey, Germany, along with Russia and Japan. That’s one of the main reasons I fight at a high level – to see the world. All the hard work and intense training does pay back.”
Describing his experience with the Elite Development Squad, Charlie said: “It gives me the opportunity to receive the best possible training and compete overseas. I’m going all-out to represent Team GB in the 2024 Olympics. It’s definitely achievable.”
Coincidentally, all five of the martial artists are studying or recently studied sports-related courses at West Notts.
Both Molly and Annalea study the Level 3 Diploma in Sport and Physical Activity and will return to college in September to complete the second and final year, while Holly and Jack have just completed their studies on the Level 3 Diploma in Supporting the Delivery of Physical Education and School Sport. Meanwhile, Charlie studies the Diploma in Health, Fitness and Exercise Instruction and is also returning in September for the final year of the course.
The five have a range of career ambitions after finishing their studies.
Molly plans to study sports coaching at university before switching to mixed martial arts and becoming a professional fighter. Her long-term aim is to open her own martial arts school.
Annalea wants to study physiotherapy or sports therapy at university before pursuing her goal of opening her own gym specialising in physio, and launching a martial arts club there.
Holly is considering returning to college in September to further her studies. Her ambition is to become a sports teacher and combine it with giving young children private tuition in jiu-jitsu, which she currently does alongside rugby coaching and refereeing.
Jack plans to study a lifeguarding qualification and work as a lifeguard upon leaving college this month before finalising his long-term career plans.
Meanwhile, Charlie is considering taking-up the offer of a funded scholarship at the University of Wolverhampton, home to the British Judo Centre of Excellence, and train to become a professional athlete alongside studying a sports degree.
The college’s programme area leader for sport, Junior Glave, said: “This is the first time we’ve had this number of high-achieving martial artists studying with us all at once, all competing and enjoying continued success at national and international level.
“It really raises the profile of the college and its sporting provision, and shows we can attract high-calibre athletes, which also inspires current and prospective students. We’re really proud of what Molly, Annalea, Holly, Jack and Charlie have achieved in their chosen sports and have no doubt they will continue to excel.”