Like many, Emmadee Fox carried the effects of schoolyard bullying into her adult life. With self-esteem locked in a downward spiral, she hid away until martial arts found her. Six years on she is a four-time world champion and a confident teacher of her art. Sport gave Emmadee a voice again and now she’s using it to pass on her story and stop others suffering in silence.
It’s hard to imagine now.
When we meet, Emmadee is self-confident, knows precisely where she’s heading in life, and is armed with the determination to get there.
A martial arts champion with dozens of British, European and world titles on her CV, and a teacher of two classes that she herself launched.
But drive and confidence are new acquaintances, and without sport they may never have come to the surface.
Both had been chipped away by a wearing daily routine of bullying endured over several years.
“Without kickboxing, I wouldn’t have done this,” Emmadee says as we discuss the last six years of her life, and the darker, unwelcome aspects which went before.
“If you told me when I started in 2012 that in 2018 I would be going to my fifth world championships as a black sash, with two classes of my own, I would have said ‘you’re having a laugh’.”
The most damaging effects of bullying can be entirely invisible.
While physical pain and scars recede, the psychological baggage from regular mental and physical abuse lingers on within, hidden from everyday view.
Like many recipients of such bleak treatment, Emmadee grew convinced that the only way to cope was to blend into the background, and gradually withdrew into herself.
“I did get picked on quite a lot through school,” she explains.
“I used to have things thrown at me, that sort of thing.
“It happened all the way through - different people all the way through, even with friends, I don’t know why.
“I’m dyslexic so I’d get taken out of English and maths, so whether it was because I was treated differently, I don’t know.
“In the end I just kept myself to myself. If I stayed quiet I wouldn’t be seen.”
When she walked tentatively into her first BCKA kickboxing lesson in January 2012, her flight instinct frantically searching for an escape route, Emmadee’s fitness, like her self-belief, had become an afterthought.
Passive to the extreme, joining a roomful of strangers to try something new was a fearful prospect.
Walking into Melton’s Polish Club that winter’s night – having finally caved in to her stepfather’s well-intentioned nudging – may not have been Emmadee’s sliding doors moment, exactly.
But without question it kickstarted her life.
“My dad knows Brent (Penniston – instructor) and started going to his classes. He said ‘you’ll enjoy it, come along’.
“I didn’t have very much self-confidence and said, ‘no it’s for boys’, but then one day I just gave in and went OK I’ll come.
“I tried to get out of my second class because I’d hurt myself because I was an unfit 20-year-old. It didn’t work.
She added: “At first, I started at the back and wouldn’t speak to anybody.
“When I had to partner up I would only do that with my stepdad, but over the weeks people start to chat to you and get to know you.
“Because I was with lots of different age groups, I learned to trust and find out that not everyone’s the same.
“We started going twice a week on Thursdays and Saturdays and then slowly built up to Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays as well.”
The group aspect helped reconstruct social skills lost to the sniping and the blows.
And what’s more, she unearthed a hidden talent within the rhythms and discipline of the Chinese martial arts.
“When I went to my first few lessons, after it stopped hurting, I thought ‘I could be quite good at this’.
“I started to get my belts which pushed me to the next level and then onto competitions.”
Two years after her first lesson, Emmadee was invited to compete at her first WKA World Championships in Portugal, winning a bronze medal.
And just 12 months later the reformed shrinking violet returned to claim two titles.
It was the start of a particularly fruitful 12-month period as Emmadee won two world gold medals and four silvers, six medals at the BCKA European Championship, and 10 in national competition.
World crowns have been added every year since without exception.
This year a long-term knee problem forced Emmadee to concentrate her training on forms (kata) – combinations of rehearsed moves – rather than the fighting.
Yet still she picked up four medals and yet another world title last month, and then became a second-degree black sash in kickboxing.
Yet success doesn’t bring immunity from nerves.
“I tend to rein them in as soon as I step onto the mat, but I still think ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this again’.
“At one competition I literally stepped on the mat and realised I couldn’t remember anything.
“I paused, did my bows and couldn’t remember what form I was doing.
“Luckily it all came back in the end.”
But at this year’s world championships, it was the fortunes of another that took priority over her own.
In November, Amie Frederick became the first pupil from Emmadee’s junior class to compete on the world stage.
Two of her Little Dragons class also made their debuts at the BCKA European Championships earlier this year.
“Amie started out with me so that was exciting.
“It’s more rewarding for me to see them getting stuff than it is me.”
Aside from bringing out a maternal pride, Emmadee believes the classes, for three to six-year-olds, can have wide-ranging benefits, exclusive of fitness.
She added: “It can help children with learning difficulties, such as autism when they can’t get their anger out, and helps them to learn discipline.
”At their age it is more about developing co-ordination and building that up than learning anything technical.”
Within a year of launching Little Dragons in 2015, the person that would once go out of her way to avoid strangers had set up a women’s class; an idea again motivated by her own experiences.
The class dovetailed with the 2015 launch of This Girl Can, a national campaign to tackle the sharp drop-off in women practicing sport and activity after school age.
It was a vacuum Emmadee had been familiar with.
“When I was younger I used to do gymnastics, and liked basketball at school, and did horse riding as well, so I had always been active
“But after primary school I just stopped. I became one of those people who just sat on the sofa.”
From someone who would routinely spend playtimes indoors, and later seek the sanctuary of the settee, loafing time is now much scarcer.
There is just one day off a week from the training and coaching, all bolted on to her day job.
Of course, there are still negative voices to face in life, but now she stands her ground.
“I got abuse on Facebook for starting my ladies-only classes.
“They say I shouldn’t discriminate, but there are a lot more classes for guys, and there isn’t a lot out there for just ladies.”
As well as passing on her martial arts knowledge and passion, Emmadee is keen to use the positives from her own story.
To help youngsters struggling with the twin torments of self-esteem and self-confidence, and show there is light, and plenty of it, all within achievable reach at the end of the tunnel.
As well as the medals placed around her neck, she has inadvertently become a champion for the restorative effect of sport and its capacity to change lives.
“Brent and I go into a lot of school classes now.
“Long Field (Academy) also get past-students in to give talks, so I went in and tried to put across how much it has helped me.
“Kickboxing has helped me a lot. I have lost weight through it, gained confidence and have a lot more co-ordination than I used to.
“And if it isn’t kickboxing there is something out there for everyone.”
That accidental new year resolution back in 2012 even helped shape a new career path.
Having loosely based her preferences around ‘animals or paramedics’, Emmadee now works as a vet and is training to become a firefighter.
“I wouldn’t be working where I am now without it.
“I literally walked into the vets with a CV and asked if there were any jobs, and had the confidence to keep going back and asking until I got one.
“I also help with Trumpton (Melton Fire Service’s annual fundraiser) at Christmas and I would never have put myself out there to go along and help, being surrounded by people I didn’t know.
“Doing that got me to thinking maybe I could work here as well and I applied to join the fire service.”
The classes Emmadee created, and the story she shares are the beginnings of her own legacy; as positive as the legacy of bullying had been destructive for her.
Sporting and personal success aside, there is, perhaps, a bigger victory achieved over those who once sought to make her life a daily torment.
She has not followed their miserable, negative example, nor allowed it to breed resentment and bitterness in her.
Life is happy.
Now, as with her approach on the kickboxing mat, there is no stepping back.
“I’m quite a calm person on the whole.
“I do get the days when I feel I want to punch some pads, but not through anger. Just when I’ve had a busy day.”