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Jesse Bruce: A life spent overcoming obstacles

In the fall, University of Guelph-Humber Kinesiology alumnus Jesse Bruce finished third among 1,500 runners at the World’s Toughest Mudder, a 24-hour endurance race in Atlanta that saw Bruce run nearly 150 kilometres, in and out of water, completing roughly 400 physically exhausting challenges along the way.

And in a way, those hurdles – demanding as they were – pale in comparison to the obstacles Bruce overcame to get to where he is.

Growing up, Bruce could never have imagined attending UofGH. He began drinking alcohol before he was a teenager, that eventually escalated into drug addiction, and Bruce ultimately found himself in and out of prison as he struggled to find his place in the world.

It took hitting bottom for Bruce to begin pulling himself out of that darkness. Now, he is nearly eight years sober, he has won more than 50 obstacle races, and he recently opened his own fitness club, One Academy, which has been voted one of the best gyms in Toronto.

Instead of running from his past, Bruce now instead hopes that his journey – and all the bumps in the road he navigated along the way – can stand as inspiration.

“During the darkest times of my life I did not see an end,” Bruce recalled. “I thought I had permanently damaged myself to the point that it was irreversible. I was stuck in this black hole and I couldn’t get out. I thought it would be like that forever.”

“But if I could say anything to anybody who’s going through that, it’s that you have to fight. You have to believe there’s a light at the end of that tunnel. You always have to keep trying to make your life better.”

“Never give up. It took me years. I put myself in a pretty dark hole. But believe me, you have the potential to do amazing things.”

A path into and out of the darkness

From the earliest memories of his childhood, Bruce never felt like he belonged.

“I can remember, even being a little kid, not feeling good enough,” he remembered.

That insecurity only grew as Bruce got older. When he drank, he found that pain would temporarily go away. He also found that once he started drinking, he could not stop, and he could not control his anger once he did become intoxicated. As a result, he only spiralled further into depression and addiction.

“That depression, that darkness, I still remember it to this day. It physically hurt. It would squeeze you. It would tighten your chest,” he recalled. “I remember feeling suffocated and that there was never going to be a way out.”

During that period, Bruce lost his mother and it seemed like his life could not get any bleaker.

Yet Bruce soon found encouragement in an unlikely place: jail. He had never been happy with his body – he even remembers that he would avoid looking in the mirror as he brushed his teeth so he would not have to see himself. With little else to occupy his time while incarcerated, he began lifting weights and immediately began to see results. He realized then the power of fitness to uplift someone, and he wanted the opportunity to help others similarly find their strength.

Finally, Bruce was motivated to change his life.

“I remember sitting in this apartment in this really dark time in my life and just asking myself if this is it – is this what you want your life to be? I just felt so sick and tired of hating myself. I made a decision right then; I enrolled in night school to finish my high-school diploma.”

After that, Bruce enrolled in a fitness and health promotion college program. It was challenging, but he persevered and managed to complete his diploma with strong grades.

It was then that he applied to the Kinesiology program at the University of Guelph-Humber. He could not believe it when he was accepted.

“I was ecstatic,” he recalled. “I never would have thought of myself going to university. None of my friends or anyone who knew me in high school would have put a dime on me to go there. My parents saw potential in me, but I never saw it myself.

“But here I was, going to university. I was pumped, I was excited. It was an amazing feeling to get that acceptance letter from UofGH.

“Then I got there and my life changed even more.”

Another lofty challenge

For Bruce, simply getting to UofGH was not enough. He wanted to excel in his studies. However, he knew that would be a challenge.

“Going to the University of Guelph-Humber was actually extremely intimidating,” he recalled. “It just seemed like a whole level up from college. I’m not going to lie – I was nervous and intimidated. It was also when I first quit drinking and dealt with my addictions at the same time.”

Jesse Bruce

Though he found his studies challenging, Bruce also found them rewarding, and learned quickly that with hard work and the support of his professors, there was no course or topic that was out of his reach.

Further, he immersed himself in campus life. He joined the Humber College cross-country team and, although he laughs now that he was a decade older than his peers, he forged close friendships and discovered a love of long-distance running. He began offering personal training and even running group fitness classes at Humber’s gym. He also found that the students in his program were supportive and similarly passionate about fitness and health.

All the while, he was biking to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every single day all across the city.

“Now not only was I working hard in school, I was training and exercising, and I was around this positive community that cared about me,” he said.

He will never forget the feeling he had walking across the stage during Convocation.

“It was just such a proud moment in my life to be a university graduate,” he remembered. “My dad said: ‘Jesse, every single sleepless night, every single thing we went through, it’s all worth it if you can help just one person.’”

Giving others a lift

By the time Bruce graduated from UofGH, he was already gaining a global reputation for his excellence on the obstacle-race circuit.

In 2013, he tried his first long-distance race – the Warrior Dash race – and he finished first out of around 15,000 participants. He began running more and more endurance races and even started his own business helping train others for the increasingly popular obstacle-course competitions.

“I love them because they’re hard,” he explained. “I want to push myself. I want to see how far I can take my body.

“These exercises, obstacles, mountains, hills – whatever I’m facing, they represent real-life obstacles. I think: ‘Look at what you’ve been through your whole life. You’ve fought so hard and now you’re here still fighting. There’s nothing you can’t do. There’s nothing you can’t get better at.’”

In 2017, he opened One Academy, a well-equipped 10,000 square-foot fitness space. Bruce wanted his gym not just to be a place for group fitness classes and personal training, but also a meeting place for a community of people who were supporting each other’s fitness and wellness goals.

“It’s all inclusive. I know what it feels like not to fit in, but I know how powerful it can be to be part of a community that cares about you and knows your name,” he said. “We’re in the business of changing lives. We’re in the business of bringing people together, of making people a part of something.”

With more than 800 regular clients and a staff of nearly 20 at his gym, Bruce acknowledges that sometimes he has to pause and take a second to consider what they have accomplished together.

He wants his own experience to provide proof that no matter what circumstances a person is enduring, there is hope.

“There are some days you don’t want to do anything – you want to give up. But for me, I have to keep pushing. I have to keep trying to make myself better,” he said.

“There are people who I can inspire, who I can help, so I have to keep pushing. I can’t stop what I'm doing. I want to be living proof to other people that if they work hard, there’s nothing they can’t do.”