Overcoming Rejection

How Robert Wong conquered multiple obstacles to achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a certified fitness instructor

Appreciative of the workout program that rescued him from a very dark place, Robert Wong made a decision—despite being well into his 50s, he would pay forward the benefits of High Fitness by teaching classes. Encouraged by instructors who were impressed by his conditioning level and outgoing nature, he began the process of becoming certified to lead the aerobics sessions.

The Calgarian created a self-shot video of the approved routine. Then with high hopes, he submitted six minutes of his smoothest moves to senior instructors. This was August 2019. He soon had a reply: not good enough.

Wong, however, was not going to surrender. Good thing. Because, as he sweated through more auditions, rejections began to stack up. Five; 10; 20; 25. For his own mental well-being, he persisted. After all, devoting himself to this cause served as a productive distraction from life’s “emotional roller-coaster.” As he noted, “It was still there, that badness, but I didn’t have time to be depressed.”

After seven months’ worth of submissions—including his 27th—an instructor invited Wong to the gym one night. It turned out to be a surprise party to welcome him aboard. Finally, the seal of approval from High Fitness. “Oh, I cried. I couldn’t believe it. I did it.”
Certification had been a soul-salving benchmark. He really needed validation as years of crushing self-worth issues had made his path towards mental health an arduous one.

In 2017, as a single parent with shared custody of his two children, he’d been devastated when his teenaged daughters decided to live full-time with their mother. “That was the worst thing I went through. That was the catalyst for my depression,” said Wong. “I’d wake up saying, ‘Is this the day I’m going to do it?’ I didn’t want to live anymore.” He went as far as jotting down a list of items to buy for his suicide attempt.

I always felt that if I went through something and learned something, it’s meaningless unless I can pass it on.

But Wong kept working—he’s in the organic food industry—and, because he’d already paid for a Fitness Plus membership, he kept working out. “Thank god.”

Lonely and yearning for interaction—and not getting much engagement from the gym-rats at the weight rack—he joined a spin class. But even that lacked social give-and-take. One day, the spin instructor nudged him towards something new, a re-imagined brand of aerobics called High Fitness.

Hooked, Wong was soon going three times per week, relishing the runner’s high of intense workouts, while fortifying his mental health. This version of group fitness was providing what he needed: community, family, empathy. “It’s hard to be depressed when you’re surrounded by all that,” he recalls.

Feeling much better, he made the decision to teach. “I always felt that if I went through something and learned something, it’s meaningless unless I can pass it on.” So, it had been gratifying when High Fitness gave him the go-ahead on March 1, 2020, even if fate tried to intervene. The very next day he was diagnosed with a hernia. A few weeks later COVID-19 shut down the world. By then, though, there was no stopping Wong. “I said, ‘Forget it. I’ve put too much work into this.’ The momentum of it was keeping me from the dark place.”

His roll continues. At the High Fitness Instructor Convention this summer in Provo, Utah, he received the Biggest Inspiration Award. “I was in my chair crying; I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I wasn’t used to this acknowledgement that I was okay, that I wasn’t a loser anymore.”

Over the years, he’d become a master at hiding his misery. Back when he was a motivational speaker in Calgary’s corporate world, he unfailingly came across as upbeat, despite his “wreck” of a personal life. Nowadays? “I don’t have to make anything up. Because of what I’ve gone through, I’m real and authentic for the first time in my life. It’s awesome.”

Meaning Wong is writing his own story, literally, in fact. In addition to teaching High Fitness classes twice weekly, he recently penned a personal essay about depression and suicide for an online media outlet. He made sure to include his contact information.
“I was putting it out there. ‘Use me,’” he explained. “I should be an example.” The 57-year-old is keen to make a difference, especially for men, who, he maintains, are under-represented on the mental-health landscape.

Wong wants to create dialogue; he wants to help. “If something happened to you—you lost your job—the first thing I say now is, ‘Are you exercising?’ Not that exercising is going to pay your bills, but it’s going to clear your mind so you say, ‘I can go get help. I can do this.’” 

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Photography By Leah Hennel

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