'A teacher told me I'd never amount to anything, but now I am a nurse and run my own gym'
Dyslexia sufferer Kevin Anderson left school at 16 with no qualifications but today owns his own gym and works as a mental health nurse. He tells Lee Henry how martial arts changed his life and gave him the confidence to retrain and start a business.
Few people begin university life with nothing and leave with a professional qualification, a wife and a set of twins - but that's exactly what happened to 35-year-old mental health nurse and kickboxing coach Kevin Anderson, who is a model for mature students everywhere.
Kevin works as a community psychiatric nurse for the Western Health and Social Care Trust and co-owns Mayhem Martial Arts and Fitness in Londonderry, coaching amateur and semi-professional fighters to enter the ring and fulfil their goals.
In childhood, however, school was difficult. While his friends raced toward their GCSEs, Kevin struggled. It wasn't until much later in life that he was diagnosed dyslexic. "For me, that was reassuring," he says. "I was finally able to reflect on my school years and realised that dyslexia was a possible cause for my lack of interest and achievements.
"I always remember a teacher at secondary school saying to me, 'Anderson, you will never amount to anything'. That was quite a statement to make to a 15-year-old boy. It stayed with me for a long time, but things change. Having graduated, I might possibly be nursing her in the future."
Born and raised in Derry, Kevin left school aged 16 with no qualifications to his name and little, if any, idea of what he wanted to do with his life. The only thing that appealed - the one activity he could focus on, enjoy and take pride in mastering - was boxing.
"I was never really into football," he recalls. "I preferred more physical contact sports. I started off doing karate for a short period and then started boxing with Ring ABC. A school friend had been at the club for a while and asked if I would be interested in joining.
"I was nervous, because I was small and thin as a child, but the coaches were very welcoming and my nerves soon subsided.
"It was incredible to be trained by former Olympic lightweight Charlie Nash.
"He had such a positive impact on so many young boxers. I remember being at his home - he had a room full of trophies. I got to try on his British title belt. That was a surreal moment for me. He was always a hero."
Kevin spent the next few years training, improving and fighting. His greatest moment in the ring came in 1996, when he competed at junior level in the Derry and District Championship with Nash in his corner, urging him on.
"I had five fights over two days and won all five of them via technical knockout, resulting in me winning the championship," he says. "I also won boxer of the tournament, which was a massive achievement for me, because there were some very high-level boxers competing."
Two years later, however, he suffered his first defeat at an event in the Guildhall in Londonderry, with friends and family in attendance. It proved to be a huge setback.
"I found it extremely hard to deal with," Kevin admits. "It was a home show in the Guildhall and I felt that I had let a lot of people down.
"I was young and naive and thought that I was unbeatable. I regretted the decision to pull back from boxing for a long time, until I found kickboxing."
In the meantime, he worked a series of jobs that paid the bills but reflected his general malaise, beginning as a cutter in a local shirt factory, then as a trimmer in a meat factory and finally as a taxi driver. "At this point I was 26 and wondering where my life was going," Kevin explains.
"I believed that I could achieve more. I knew I had to make severe changes."
In 2008, he enrolled on the Access Diploma in Combined Studies at North West Regional College in Derry. After excelling in all aspects of the course, he signed up for a degree in mental health nursing at the Ulster University.
It was a subject close to Kevin's heart, as it is for so many others in the Derry area, where the Foyle Search and Rescue helicopters seem to be in perpetual motion and where many families are affected by suicide.
"Suicide and self-harm are topics that I take great interest in and based my dissertation around," he says.
"I have lost family members on both sides due to suicide and I have close family who battle with mental health difficulties daily. Watching family suffer is difficult.
"Personally, I believe that Derry and Northern Ireland as a whole are still feeling the effects of conflict.
"The rate of people prescribed antidepressants in Northern Ireland is significantly higher than the rest of the UK, and research would suggest that is common in post-conflict societies."
Graduating in 2012 with a 2:1 was "an extremely proud moment" for Kevin, who was the first in his family to attend university. He went on to work with 16 to 35-year-olds suffering with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues, and currently works with elderly patients at Gransha Hospital
"I absolutely love my job," Kevin says. "There is not a day goes by where I dread going in. I like helping people to live the best lives they possibly can with support."
Now, he seeks to combine his work in mental health nursing with his passion for contact sports to improve the lives of patients and fighters.
Kickboxing has been part of his life since 2005, when he met first coach Brian Crossan. Kevin enjoyed several fights before following Crossan into coaching. He was a natural. The pair opened Mayhem Martial Arts and Fitness, a gym that has produced champions, 11 years ago.
"In 2015, a service user and I co-produced and co-delivered a teaching session on the importance of physical activity and mental health via The Recovery College, and in the gym I love watching people progress and become more confident, not only at kickboxing but in life in general," Kevin tells me.
"Throughout my 10 years coaching, I have seen some incredible results.
"We had a member who suffered from social anxiety, for example. Walking into a kickboxing gym for the first time can be a very daunting experience for anyone, but it was particularly terrifying for this gentleman. Over the next few months, the coaching team watched him go through a life transformation. As a result, he fought in front of 700 people on several occasions."
Kevin and Brian have worked closely with the White Collar Boxing Association to encourage members of the public to get fit, fight and raise money for charity, but when a recent event failed - much to the disappointment of those fighters already signed up - the pair took it upon themselves to organise a replacement.
"In the end, our fighters raised £5,000 for Foyle Hospice and it was a massive success," Kevin reveals. "We're going to put on three of our own white collar fights every year from now on. I would hope we will make at least £30,000 in the next two years for various charities with our white-collar boxing and kickboxing shows."
Having met and married Sarah (33) while studying for his degree, he is now a proud father to twin girls Aimee and Lauren (2). Sarah also enjoys kickboxing and has competed in full contact events herself. "It was extremely hard to be in her corner during her fights," Kevin admits, wincing at the thought. "My girls are too young for kickboxing just yet, but at Mayhem our kids' classes begin at age four, so I will certainly be joining them up when the time comes. I believe that any martial art is a great way not only to keep fit, but to learn discipline and respect. They are already into boxing, though. They watch it with me on television."
Kevin "feels the benefits" of exercising in every aspect of his life, and his personal fitness regime involves training four times a week and eating smart. "Everything in moderation," he says. "I never deprive myself of anything and I do not believe in fad diets. They are unrealistic and impossible to maintain.
"I train in the mornings mainly, due to family and work commitments. I wake at 4.45am to be in Derry for 5.30am. I live 10 miles away. Outside kickboxing, I also do CrossFit, functional training with a mixture of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and over functional movements. I have found that my knowledge in explosive power and functional movement has significantly improved since joining CrossFit three years ago. It has changed how I coach at Mayhem and train myself."
With the big 40 looming on the horizon, Kevin feels fitter, happier and healthier than ever before. Having experienced the lows, he is now very much enjoying the highs of career success and family life, welcoming one and all to his gym with a huge smile on his face.
He is moving forward with renewed optimism and an enduring will to help others. He concludes that his plan for the future "is to be the best father, husband and nurse I possibly can be".