Story Untold: “I Would Never Want to Lose the Addict Part of Me, Because It’s All the Best Parts of Me”

Charlie Engle

Charlie Engle is not like most people. For one thing, he’s run across the Sahara Desert — a feat that turned into a documentary narrated by none other than Matt Damon. He’s “summited ice-covered volcanoes, swam with crocodiles, and served a stint in federal prison.” Making the North Carolina-based writer and ultramarathon runner’s story even more improbable is that he’s accomplished everything after overcoming a life-threatening drug and alcohol addiction.

Engle had always been an athlete. After running a five-minute mile in Grade 8, he went on to star in six sports throughout high school. It was only after starting university at North Carolina that he discovered another, more destructive talent.

“I figured out very quickly that I was an absolute brilliant, All-American drinker,” says Engle. “And that became — unfortunately for me — my hobby to begin with, and then my vocation later, and then it became the thing that sort of sustained me.”

What started with alcohol turned to cocaine — which, in the United States of the 1980s, came to define an era of drug use.

“I did a couple of lines, and it was like some super light switched on in my head, and it didn’t really switch off again for ten years,” says Engle. “I had lots of friends in college that could do a little bit, and party and have some fun, and actually go to bed and get up and go to class the next day. I was not that guy.”

“It seemed like there was nothing I couldn’t do. And then of course, twenty minutes later, you need more of it, and then it starts all over again.” – Charlie Engle

No longer attending class, Engle eventually left the University of North Carolina in his junior year and moved in with his father in California. He describes the next ten years as “chasing that first experience and trying to match that initial [high].”

“Addicts are suckers for their inner addict,” says Engle. “That’s the voice that gets listened to, and it’s a very hard voice to resist.”

The tipping point, he says, came in July of 1992 after the birth of his firstborn son. Vowing to get clean, he nonetheless ended up on a lengthy crack cocaine binge in Wichita, Kansas, during which his car ended up littered with bullet holes that were intended for him.

“Nobody else could save me,” says Engle. “I thought my son could actually be my saviour. I thought he could stop me from being a drug addict. And the final dose of reality [was] understanding that there was no one but me that could actually make that happen.”

Newly sober, Engle turned to the one thing that made him feel alive: running. He started entering marathons, and then ultramarathons — running through jungles, over mountains, and in races around the world. One day, a friend — Canadian Ray Zahab — floated the idea of running across the Sahara.

“You know, the why was as simple as no one had ever done it before,” says Engle, “and there are very few firsts in the endurance world that are left anymore. It gave us this incredible opportunity to see if we could do something that had never been done.”

“Seeing the world through the soles of my feet is so much more satisfying and meaningful than seeing it from the passenger seat of a tour bus. That’s what running has done for me. It’s given me a relatable way to see the world.” – Charlie Engle

Joined by Kevin Lin, another ultramarathon runner from Taiwan, the two embarked on the challenge in November of 2006, running through six countries and nearly 7,000 kilometres from Senegal to Egypt. Engle partnered with narrator Damon to create H20 Africa — an initiative which has since become — with the goal of bringing clean water to communities along the Sahara route.

Now 25 years sober and a motivational speaker, Engle has turned his life’s story into the memoir Running Man. The story captures Engle’s peaks and valleys, from the depths of addiction, to the vastness of the Sahara, to his time behind prison bars.

“I would never want to lose the addict part of me, because it’s all the best parts of me,” says Engle.

“If I’m not drinking and using, it’s the thing that’s made me successful in some things; it’s the thing that’s made me good at some things. And it’s given me drive and determination, and quirkiness and humour. You know, you can only throw up on your shoes so many frickin’ times and not laugh about it.”

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Story Untold: “I Had Every Strike Against Me”

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Very few voices can cut through a room like Wali Shah’s. The Mississauga-raised spoken word artist’s signature baritone has led him to appearing on MTV with Selena Gomez, presenting as a TEDx speaker, performing at the Air Canada Centre, and even freestyling with Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Pakistan, Shah touches on social issues and his South Asian and Muslim background, and blends it with comedy and personal experience in his spoken word art. In 2014, he was selected as one of Youth in Motion’s Top 20 Under 20 — a Canada-wide honour — and this year, he was announced as Mississauga’s Poet Laureate.

“It’s a dream come true. All of this,” says Shah. It wasn’t too long ago, he notes, “I had every strike against me.”

Shah was 15 years old when he was arrested for assault charges and spent the night in jail.

“For a long time, I felt like I didn’t know where my place was,” he says. “When I was younger, I had a lot of friends that weren’t the best examples or influences in my life. I ended up making some wrong friends.”

Being taken away from his home in a police car — while his mother looked on in tears — affected Shah deeply.

“I remember thinking, ‘I let my parents down. My parents came from Pakistan to Canada to give their kid an education and a future, and I let [them] down,’” he says.

Vowing to turn his situation into a positive, Shah began volunteering in earnest and looking for ways to make a difference in his community.

“The positive I took from that situation was that I want to use this experience to fuel my future work in terms of advocating for kids that are at risk, or advocating for men that have the wrong perception of what masculinity is, which [leads] them [to] make decisions that can be life-altering,” he says.

“You can make a difference through your art.”

Shah’s high school teacher handed him a book, Tupac Shakur’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete. He began finding his calling as a spoken word artist and motivational speaker, gaining strength from telling his story.

He started working with UNITY Charity, then United Way — the latter of which he has raised over $1-million for to date.

“I’ve always been able to take a positive from every situation,” says Shah.

“If I didn’t have the struggles, I also wouldn’t be able to appreciate all the blessings.”

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Story Untold: “It’s Amazing What You Can Overcome [With] the Right People Around You”

If there’s a blueprint to recovery after a traumatic brain injury, Ben Fanelli is prototype.

Eight years after suffering a fractured skull as a 16-year-old rookie in the Ontario Hockey League — an incident that left him hospitalized and at risk of needing brain surgery — the former Kitchener Ranger is happy, healthy, and showing no signs of slowing down.

These days, Fanelli sits on the board of directors of the EMPWR Foundation, a charitable movement driven towards concussion recovery that he spearheaded in the two years after his 2009 injury. He’s an assistant coach with the University of Waterloo men’s hockey team, and in his spare time, he runs his own fitness company.

Remarkable, considering his odds of recovery all those years ago. After being checked into the boards behind his own net, the Rangers rookie’s helmet came off and his head hit the metal stanchion holding the panes of glass together. He went unconscious.

The hit sent shockwaves through the hockey community. Well-wishes came all the way from Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night in Canada. Fanelli was airlifted to the hospital and has no recollection of the 24-hours surrounding the injury.

“[The doctor] said that sports were completely out of the question for the rest of my life,” says Fanelli. “He said that if I did go to school, I would need two years off and would need a teaching assistant in all my classes. And the scariest thing he had for me was that I may not be the same person I was the first 16 years of my life.”

“When I came to in the hospital, I remember the doctor was standing to my right and my mom was sitting to my left, and as I started to come to, my mom asked, ‘Ben, do you know why you’re here?’ And instantly, I started to tear up, because I had no concept or idea why I was in that hospital bed.” – Ben Fanelli

So began a two-year recovery process during which Fanelli — undeterred — prepared himself for a shot at returning.

“What I came to realize was that if and ever I was able to play the game of hockey again, it would have to be step-by-step and [by] slowly chip[ping] away,” he says. “The concept I came to understand and that gave me hope was that each day’s an opportunity to bring yourself that much closer to whatever that goal is. So say my odds were very low to start with, each day you can add half a percent, and then the next day, another half percent.”

Newly motivated and energized, Fanelli eventually moved back to Kitchener to continue his recovery. In 2011, he launched Head Strong: Fanelli for Brain Injury Awareness (now EMPWR) and trained to compete in a triathlon.

“I walked into [head coach Steve Spott’s] office, and he said, ‘Ben, you’re a part of this team for the next five years if you want to be. We’re going to leave your stall there; that’s your spot. Your role’s going to be up to you.’ And that was just the beginning of an incredible two years of support.” – Ben Fanelli

“There were times I would go into [a coffee shop],” says Fanelli, “and people would stop and say, ‘Hey, I hope to see you playing again, but if not, I wish you the best with whatever you do with your life.’”

On September 23rd, 2011, that day finally came.

Fanelli made his return to the Rangers lineup to a standing ovation. The following year, he was named the OHL’s Humanitarian of the Year — the first Kitchener Ranger ever to win the award. Two years later, he was voted team captain.

As for the years to come, only time will tell.

“It’s amazing what you can overcome when you have the right people around you,” says Fanelli.

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Story Untold: “There Are Always People That Will Doubt Us”

josh cassidy

Josh Cassidy stopped listening to others’ doubts years ago. Born with neuroblastoma in his spine and abdomen, and left partially-paralyzed from near-birth, Cassidy has become a three-time Canadian Paralympian and World Record-setting wheelchair athlete.

Quite the accomplishment for a kid who faced coin-flip odds over whether he’d live to see his first birthday.

“I think it was just over a 50 percent chance [of survival] at the time, so it was very scary for my parents — you know, firstborn son, new parents… I can’t even imagine what that would’ve been like,” says Cassidy, who was born in Ottawa.

Growing up using a wheelchair from the very beginning, “it forced me to be innovative with a lot of things at an early age,” he says. It also thickened his skin.

“At an early age, kids are very honest,” says Cassidy. “They might ask, they might not. Doesn’t matter. But then when you get to a certain age, there were years when I would have bullying or teasing, or just other kids not understanding. [And] obviously, that has an effect on you.”

“There are still people who say ‘you can’t do that.’ It’s something I take as a little bit of fuel [and] put it in my pocket, but not let it take over or bring me down.” – Josh Cassidy

Cassidy eventually found his place by high school, around the same time he discovered his school’s track and field team had a wheelchair race. That same year, Canadian Paralympian Jeff Adams won five medals at the 2000 Sydney Games. A love for the sport blossomed.

“My first few [races], it was just in my everyday chair — and talk about thickening skin,” he says. All around him, other athletes were in dedicated racing chairs. Still, he held his own.

He kept competing, and as his confidence grew, his times improved and the stakes grew higher. He’s never looked back. Eight years after watching Adams at the Sydney Games, Cassidy earned his spot on the Canadian team for Beijing.

“That was such an incredible moment: getting my first Team Canada uniform and seeing the [Olympic] torch,” he says.

Other incredible moments would follow, highlighted by a first-place finish at the London Marathon in 2010 and a World Record-setting finish at the Boston Marathon in 2012.

A Paralympic medal still eludes Cassidy — something that has him training in earnest for another shot at the Tokyo Games in 2020. The doubters remain, although Cassidy seems undeterred.

“It never stops,” he says. “There are still people who say ‘you can’t do that.’ It’s something I take as a little bit of fuel [and] put it in my pocket, but not let it take over or bring me down.”

After all, he’s beaten the odds before.

“Having [those early experiences in the hospital] shape me, it gave me perspective on life, on health,” says Cassidy. “[It just gave me] this desire to do what I want to do in the world.”

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Story Untold: “The Biggest Thing That Holds Us Back in Life is Fear”

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A few short years ago, Amy Tunstall was a self-described prisoner to her own bed. Today, she’s travelled over 17,000 kilometres across three continents by bicycle, raising awareness for mental health.

“I was lucky, because I found a way to cope through the outdoors — but I always have my ups and downs,” says Tunstall.

For the 24-year-old from Niagara, Ontario, the importance of mental health became clear early on in life, after losing her father to suicide at the age of five.

“It was a really hard process for me,” says Tunstall.

“Mental health is something that a lot of people don’t fully understand. And when you deal with suicide, it’s a really hard death to try and cope with. My whole life, I’ve grown up with people who don’t understand or don’t care.”

“I think the biggest thing that holds us back in life is fear: fear of what other people are going to think, fear that we’re not going to make ends meet. If I let fear get the best of me, then I never would have done the things that I’ve done.” – Amy Tunstall

Tunstall found her element — and a release for her own depression and anxiety — when a friend suggested they bike across Canada together. By the time she finished in 2015, she had rediscovered a love for the outdoors and a newfound confidence in herself:

“I ended up in St. John’s, and instead of it being this super joyous moment of ‘I just completed something huge,’ it was more of ‘What now? What do I do next?’”

In the two years since, Tunstall has biked across New Zealand and South America. This fall, she plans to hike the Bruce Trail — a total of nearly 900 kilometres — raising funds for the Canadian Mental Health Association. A trip across Cuba by bicycle is also on the horizon.

“I think what drives me is just that need to go explore,” says Tunstall. “There’s so much out there that I haven’t discovered yet.”

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Story Untold: “I Wanted to Feel Alive Instead of Feeling Comfortable”

Christian Marques had it all — a well-paying job as a software engineer, a nice apartment in the French Riviera — but deep down, something was missing.

“I was feeling very disappointed with my position in society. I felt that I was working too much for someone else […] and I felt like I was just another cog in the machine,” says Marques, a native of Portugal.

So it was that the moonlighting poet left it all behind to hitchhike over eight months from Turkey to Nepal, his only constant companion a backpack, in what has become a book of verses in A Wandering Poem.

“I wanted to feel alive instead of feeling comfortable,” says Marques. “Comfort and security numb you, if you want to put it that way. You don’t get to feel that human intensity of confronting yourself with other people, with different cultures.”

“The first [encounter] that I had with the real Islam was very fascinating to me,” he adds. “It was like being a child again. Every little detail — the food, the smells, the way people think about things — everything was different.”

Resolving to write a poem a day based on his experiences, Marques went from Turkey through Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Pakistan, and India to Nepal — along the way, surviving a car crash in Iran, getting caught in a shootout in Balochistan, meeting refugees bound for Europe in Pakistan, and helping the earthquake relief effort in Nepal. He also experienced endless hospitality from people along the way — meeting truck drivers who would pay for meals and drive him hundreds of kilometres, and hosts who insisted on treating him like family.

The experiences left a profound impact on Marques, who now calls Lisbon home.

“If we have this gift of being alive, we should enjoy it fully,” he says. “And that’s something I learned on this trip — enjoy every moment as if it was the last.”

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Not One Day Too Many

My Opa has a way with words.

Not that they come often and in abundance, but when they do, they come as just the right ones for the occasion — bowties to the packaging.

On this occasion, it was his and my Oma’s sixtieth wedding anniversary: sixty years of marriage in a new country, learning a new language, raising two daughters that would lead to three grandchildren. My Oma and Opa came by boat to Canada from Germany, in search of a better life — my Opa first, in 1951; my Oma later, in 1957.

“Our ship was a small 9,000 tonne freighter with bunk beds three high — a little nutshell on the ocean,” he tells us. “We were in the bowel of the ship, probably the worst place to be with the swell of the waves. The ocean was one sea of foam, like boiling water.”

The trip was supposed to last around nine days; instead, it took 16 to reach St. John, New Brunswick. He arrived in St. Catharines by train on Christmas Eve, 24 years old and separated from the rest of his three siblings.

It was on a return trip to Europe in 1956 that my Oma and Opa first met. My Opa had returned to his hometown near Gdańsk (formerly Danzig) and met my Oma while visiting connections in the area.

“It seems we both caught fire immediately,” he says.

With a promise to come to Canada if my Opa would send her a one-way ticket, my Oma arrived by ship to New York City in April of 1957. My Opa drove from St. Catharines to pick her up at the pier and bring her back.

“We missed out on the dating and getting to know each other, but we were in love, and true love can overcome many obstacles,” he says.

By July, they were married — “not just for better or worse,” my Opa says, “but for good.”

Sixty years have passed since then.

Not one day too many, my Opa says.


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