BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Northern Taekwondo Club founder and instructor Lee Heyes
TAUNTED and targeted '“ Lee Heyes will always remember the pain of being the victim of the school playground bullies.
The memories of being intimidated during his formative years still makes the 43-year-old grimace even now, more than 30 years later.
But while Heyes’ tormentors regularly made his life hell when he was growing up, he admits that the experience turned out to have a positive impact on him.
Instead of wallowing in isolation and fear at school, Heyes sought a way of getting the better of the bullies.
It led to him trying his hand at the sport of taekwondo and as he reflects now, the decision proved be a defining moment.
The martial art armed him with the tools to keep his tormentors at bay, as well as giving him a new-found confidence in life.
More than three decades later, Heyes can beam proudly at the fact that he is now the holder of a seventh-dan black belt.
He is a former British junior champion and now teaches the sport full-time across Lancashire after setting up Northern Taekwondo Club in the 1990s.
Being able to do something he loves on a daily basis is a dream come true for the Thornton man.
And in an ironic kind of way, maybe Heyes has a lot to thank the bullies for.
“I used to dread going to school because of the bullies,” said Heyes.
“I went to Burn Naze Primary School – it’s now called Thornton Primary School – in the early 1980s. It was quite a rough school.
“I used to get bullied quite badly and it affected my confidence at school.
“But then one of my friends said, ‘Why don’t you come down here and look at this’.
“That’s when I was first introduced to the sport of taekwondo.
“I saw it for the first time and thought, ‘Wow that looks fantastic’.
“I remember going back home and saying to my mum, ‘Let me take this up’.
“And that’s what I did.
“I really took to it and it’s fair to say I’ve never looked back since .
“I was about 10-years-old when I took the sport up.
“From starting, I achieved a black belt within three years.
“It definitely built my confidence up in everything I did.
“Once I began to learn taekwondo nobody could bully me anymore because I could take care of myself.
“It meant that when I went to Millfield High School, in Thornton Cleveleys, I could really progress and not worry about being bullied or anything like that.
“Obviously, I started doing taekwondo as a hobby and now it’s become my full-time job.
“I teach all over the North West and I never expected that I would be doing that.
“It’s a fantastic thing to be able to do something for a living that you really enjoy doing.”
Over the past 20 years or so, he has taught thousands of students – both young and old – across the county.
He took his first ever class in the village of Hambleton when nine students attended.
He then formed a club at Penwortham Leisure Centre, which this month is celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Known plainly as Penwortham Taekwondo Club back then, the club has expanded beyond all recognition from those humble beginnings.
Heyes changed the name to its present-day moniker and began to teach at various places across the region from the Fylde coast to Longridge to Clitheroe.
He has, though, always maintained links with Penwortham – and some of his very first students still attend training on a weekly basis.
One of those existing members is Lynn Kenmare, who joined the club as a novice and has progressed to become a black belt.
And incredibly her son Sam (12) and daughter Freya (10) have followed in their mother’s footsteps to also achieve a black belt under Heyes’ tutelage.
“We were the first taekwondo club to open in Penwortham,” said Heyes.
“It was about 20 years ago nearly to the day that a picture and a story appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post to say that we were the first taekwondo club to open in Penwortham.
“There were no taekwondo clubs in the area in those days.
“I think there might have been a few martial arts club in some parts of the town.
“When I looked there were just one or two judo classes and maybe a boxing gym.
“I just saw it as an opportunity for me to get youngsters to learn something new.
“At the time, I had a full-time job working in the civil service, but the club just went from strength to strength and I was able to turn it into a full-time career. My first class was in Hambleton but what attracted me to Penwortham was when I looked around, I saw there was an opportunity to bring to the area a new martial art and give people the opportunity to try something new and different.
“When you think about all the martial art clubs which have opened and shut over the years, we are still there and going strong.
“Some of our very first members still train with us now.
“Like Lynn Kenmare or Griffiths as she was known when she first started before she got married.
“She is one of our existing members and still comes to train at Penwortham.
“Her first lesson was in 1996 and she went through to get a black belt and her children Freya and Sam followed her and they are now black belts.
“Over the years, we have got a lot of people through to black belt but some people are not with us any more because they have moved away, got different jobs or have different lives.”
While the class in Penwortham is very much a family affair, the same could be said for the rest of the club.
In fact, Heyes is not the only black belt in his own immediate family.
Daughter Ella is a second poom black belt. At nine-years-old, she is believed to be one of the youngest students in the country to achieve such a feat, while mother Laura is a third dan.
It looks like youngest daughter Poppy, who is aged just three, is also about to follow in her family’s footsteps.
“Ella started doing taekwondo when she was three-years-old,” Heyes said.
“She used to come to the club with me and I’d let her do her thing.
“I never tried to push her or anything, but for 10 or 15 minutes, I would let her have a go.
“She was always keen to do what her dad does and she just took to it naturally.
“We are very proud of what she’s achieved and her level is outstanding. Some of the kicks that she does, and her fitness and flexibility and technique are excellent for someone her age.
“She must be one of the youngest, if not the youngest second poom black belt in the country.
“My youngest daughter Poppy has not started just yet, but she still comes to the classes and it probably won’t be long before she starts to join in.”
Interestingly, Heyes’ wife Laura (35) took up the martial art not as a direct result of her husband’s prompting.
“Laura always said she was never going to take taekwondo up,” Heyes revealed.
“She did not want to take part and she just felt it was not for her.
“But then she got attacked one Saturday night about eight-and-a-half years ago.
“It was at about 10 o’clock in a takeaway in Poulton-le Fylde.
“Two women just set upon her and hit her.
“It was a totally unprovoked attack, but because Laura had not been trained in any form of martial art, she just froze.
“But when you are trained in martial arts, when somebody goes to attack, you learn to have this reflex which enables you to block an attack.
“Laura did not have that reflex at the time and was knocked unconscious.
“I said to her afterwards, if you had been trained in taekwondo, you would have been able to block the attack.
“It made her realise that taekwondo would have helped her in that situation and it was that which really encouraged her to take it up.”
With taekwondo now a fully-fledged Olympic sport, Heyes is hoping that one of his students – maybe his daughters – could perhaps follow in the footsteps of Britain’s Jade Jones, who has won gold medals at the last two Olympic Games.
“Back when I first started, taekwondo was not an Olympic sport,” said Heyes, who also runs training sessions at several schools across the area.
“I think it became a demonstration sport at the 1988 Olympics and became a full Olympic sport in 2000.
“I was British Junior champion in 1990 at the age of 16. I went down to Bristol and won the competition.
“The year before, I had won silver in Edinburgh.
“If it had been in the Olympics then I might have looked to have tried to compete.
“But the sport was in its infancy as far as the Olympics was concerned so there was never really any thought as far as I was concerned of going to an Olympics.
“I did reach a really good level and I competed right the way up to being a second dan.
“I’m hoping that my children will sort of take up where I left off.”
Anybody who would like to try their hand at taekwondo can contact Lee Heyes at [email protected] or 07779 275207.
If you say that you have seen this article in the Evening Post or online, then your first lesson will be free. The club runs classes at the following centres:
Blackpool: Tuesdays 7.30pm – 8.30pm Waterloo Road Methodist church; Thursdays 6pm – 7pm Highfield Humanities College; Saturdays 9.30am – 10.30am Waterloo Road Methodist Church.
Kirkham/Wesham: Monday 6.15pm – 7.15pm Wesham Community Centre
Thornton/Cleveleys: Wednesday 6pm – 7pm Millfield High School; Saturday 12.30pm – 1.30pm St Johns Church
Penwortham/Preston: Fridays 6pm – 7pm Penwortham Leisure Centre; Tuesdays 6pm – 7pm Penwortham Lesiure Centre
Pilling: Fridays 6pm – 8PM St John The Baptist Church, Pilling
Clitheroe: Fridays 6pm – 7pm Roefield Leisure Centre, Clitheroe
Longridge: Wednesday’s 6.30pm – 8.30pm Longridge Leisure Centre