Athletes often push themselves to the limit, hoping that surpassing a breaking point will help shed their inner demons.

It works – sometimes – but consistency is needed.

Take, for instance, the story of three recent state champions from Lonestar Martial Arts in Waxahachie. Each of the three continues to better themselves through dedication to their craft. It’s all thanks to the continued positive influence of their sensei.

The smell of sweat practically seeps through the walls inside the dojo. Behind every punch is a focused shout that sounds a signal to become better. Opposite of those embattled athletes lined in rows is the man who believes in them most – Andre Hodge.

Lonestar Martial Arts has served as a sanctuary for students to find themselves since its opening. And those who walk inside are often cautioned the journey is not comfortable, a message owner and head trainer Hodge shares with each individual on day one.

The sport has, however, allowed Gibson Chandler, 18, Brayden Garcia, 17, and Chevy Lyons-Stillwell, 9, to transform their challenges into respect and, most recently, state sparring titles in the AOK 2019 Strong State Championship.

Their championships were a celebration, certainly. And, for two of the three, it was a moment to put those times of being severely teased or physically bullied in their rearview.

Garcia is one of those who has never had an easy life.

“I have a speech impediment and, when I was young, I was overweight, so I would always get bullied,” the now-6-foot-2 Garcia said. “So, I started karate to defend myself. I had every intention of defending myself but then Mr. Hodge molded that into respect.”

Lyons-Stillwell had the same intentions when he began training two years ago. He most recently turned that invested time into a state championship in the 8- to 9-year-old intermediate division – the largest with 80 competitors.

“I get bullied at school and thrown up against the wall sometimes, and my teacher told me not to fight back, but I didn’t know that before I came here,” said the blonde-headed boy as he fought a minor nose bleed suffered during a recent sparring practice. “But now that I come here, I know how to defend myself at school.”

Lyons-Stillwell trains three to four days a week and said he views Lonestar Martial Arts as a safe place and support system. He even aspires to be a mentor, “Because I can protect them. I can know a lot about them and be part of their family, or be a brother or sister to me.”

Troubles that kept them from being typical kids never set them back on the mat but, instead, they fed off that energy. With Hodge in their corner, the athletes grew mentally tough and eventually stronger physically.

Support from Hodge got Chandler through his martial arts career and, most recently, through the final match in the adult light-weight, black belt division, where his challengers were aged between 18 and 34.

It was his first year to compete against opponents who had practiced the sport longer than he’d been alive. A milestone was hit when Chandler advanced divisions in the middle of the season and then, to win it all, was a dream come true.

For Chandler, he had his first lesson on his seventh birthday.

“I didn’t even step on the mat my first time because it was so nerve-wracking,” he said.

Chandler admitted he’d lost more matches than won but had a good attitude about his losing record. That’s because moments of failure is when he learned the most and without that knowledge, he’d never be where he is today.

“The respect has definitely helped and, when you give respect, you get respect in return,” Chandler said. “My confidence was also boosted. I struggled [by] quitting a lot of sports when I was little. I never stuck with anything for longer than a year.”

Right before Chandler felt the urge to quit martial arts, Hodge purchased the business, which influenced the then 7-year-old to stick around.

But the tournaments, injuries and trophies would mean nothing with the combined 24 years Hodge has trained Garcia, Chandler and Lyons-Stillwell.

“I learned that, every day, I’m learning martial arts, I can incorporate it in every day,” Garcia said. “I can interact with people; it’s helped with my social skills – it’s granted me a lot of patience.”

And patience is what led Garcia to beat his 6-foot, 6-inch opponent from Houston to win first place in the 16-17 advanced division – championing 18 other competitors.

That final fight for victory did not come easy either. Garcia suffered a blow that dislocated his knee less than one minute into the championship match, not to mention he was down points at the first break. Throwing kick after kick, Garcia came back after tying and won after two rounds of sudden deaths.

Garcia said he would not have been able to battle through and have this accomplishment without Hodge.

“My father wasn’t really around when I was little and Mr. Hodge was that father figure,” Garcia said. “He stepped in and was the one who kept me on my grind and influenced me.”

Garcia, who was first introduced to the sport at age 7, did not have the strongest start to the sport. He lost his first tournament fight and felt the urge to quit. But Hodge taught him to believe in his capability and trust his body. Hard work later earned Garcia third-place in his fifth tournament. After that, it took six years before he competed again.

Garcia reflected on his devotion to the dojo and took a minute to adequately put into words the impact Hodge has had in his life.

“With every boy who grows up without a dad, it leaves that hole in their heart, and I can say full heartedly [Hodge] filled that hole,” Garcia said as he looked around the martial arts studio. “He is the one that’s always been there.”

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