Obstacles That Shape Us: How vulnerability helped heal Winnipeg boxer
Obstacles that Shape Us is a series of inspiring stories shared by Canadians who have overcome adversity. Learn how their life experiences impacted who they are and what they do today.
After winning his life back from a battle with addictions that nearly killed him, Roland Vandal is in the boxing ring again.
Vandal’s path took a downward spiral when his boxing coach sexually abused him as a teenager. For years he tried to maintain a tough image, bottling emotions that led to alcohol and drug use, crime and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was at my worst when I tried to put that face on where I was tough and everything was ok … I was dying inside,” Vandal said. “In the community we were all tough guys, right? Just kind of the way I grew up and my dad was like that.”
At one of his worst points, he ran a hair and tanning salon in Winnipeg which allowed him to store thousands of dollars worth of cocaine.
“When I was 26 I was a train wreck, on the outside I would have looked like I had everything together but I had a hair salon … and I was doing all this crazy stuff … my life was completely unmanageable.”
“My opinion of me was based on what you thought of me, I had no sense of self, I lost my sense of self and I believe that in my own personal story, it was because of the abuse… I was so disconnected from everything.”
He decided to turn his life around after surviving a suicide attempt in 2001 which involved writing a note to his son, then drinking a bottle of methadone after a night of partying with friends.
“My moment of clarity was that I’m going to die and my son is going to grow up without a dad and I’m doing nothing about it,” he said.
After receiving treatment at a Winnipeg hospital, vowing to stay sober, and writing a book about his life, Off The Ropes – My Story, Vandal started sharing his story.
“It wasn’t working until I started to be open with my story and be vulnerable, show emotion … I started to heal.”
Vandal is now 16 years sober and back in the boxing ring.
While he admits speaking up made him feel highly exposed, he wants people to know silence hurt even more than the abuse.
“I’m completely transparent, I have no secrets and I just really believe we’re only as sick as our secrets, and you know what? I don’t have none,” he said.
“I’m vulnerable … if anybody wants to talk about me they can go read the book,” Vandal said, adding that taking a step to reach out and trust people has changed his outlook. “I just really believe that I’m free from all that yuck now.”
Vandal is now helping others fight their way to a better future as a coach at Stingers Boxing Academy, which he opened with his friend from high school, Kent Brown, in January 2018.
Brown and Vandal started Stingers to provide coaching for life in an environment that fosters confidence, self-respect and self-discipline in the same area they grew up, east Kildonan. The academy is located beside John Henderson High School at 970 Brazier St. and attracts people from all over Winnipeg.
“We can see the difference in these kids, some come from a bad background, some are in care, CFS, some are from affluent families,” Brown said, adding that every race and age is welcome to train in the family environment.
“This is a place people the come to train together… learn about themselves and giving back. It’s a boxing family.”
Vandal runs unique weekend ‘full circle’ sessions at the academy which focus on wellness and end with a meditation session.
“There’s a place, I believe, in all of us … where we keep everything in a locked guarded vault, and it’s never going to see the light of day, and so many people don’t let themselves get to that place,” Vandal said.
Meditation has become part of Vandal’s personal routine to arrive at a place where he feels empowered to help others. Mindfulness has changed his definition of strength over time.
“Now I look at somebody who is strong as somebody who is open minded, doesn’t judge much… somebody that is vulnerable to emotion.”
For people who are struggling with letting their guard down, Vandal said it’s important to be open minded.
“If you think you’re the smartest person in the room chances are you’re the loneliest person in the room … nobody wants to be around people like that,” he said.
“At the end of the day I never felt good about anything when I had that kind of arrogant attitude and defiant attitude so I don’t want to be like that anymore.”
When he’s not in the boxing ring helping people maintain a healthy lifestyle, Vandal is spending time with his sons or giving back in the community.
For years, he dedicated his life to helping others on their journey to recovery at Red Road Lodge (RRL), a 45-bed recovery centre which helps marginalized people in Manitoba. Both Vandal and Brown are now board members at RRL.
Vandal is also a motivational speaker and advocate to end bullying and abuse, travelling often to share his story to inspire others to speak up.
“I want people to know that they can do the same thing, there’s nothing special about me, I’m just Roland Vandal from east Kildonan… I was a train wreck for half my life, now I’m considered one of the top leaders in Manitoba.”
WATCH: Full interview with Vandal about the obstacles that shaped who he is and what he does today