Detours and back roads to a dream

Story by Spc. Adam Garlington, U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs

Sgt. John Roland Rene, a U.S. Army Europe healthcare specialist, works the heavy bag in preparation for the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships that were held Feb. 27 through March 3 at Fort Carson, Colo. (Photo by Andreas Ewert)

HEIDELBERG, Germany — John Roland Rene grew up alongside three brothers and two sisters in the northwestern part of D.C., referred to by locals as “Uptown,” with a dream of fighting for his country in an Olympic boxing ring.

Jean Rene, his father and once All-Marine boxer, started training him when he was 5 years old. His mother, Michelle, used to take him to Midtown Youth Academy, a local boxing gym. There, Eugene R. Hughes, Sugar Ray Leonard’s former youth trainer, taught him to box.

Because of his parent’s busy schedules, Rene’s exposure to the gym was limited, so he compensated by engaging in other hobbies and activities.

Soccer and dancing, however, were not received well by the neighborhood children, which made it difficult for Rene to make friends.

“The football players would always talk trash and try to beat me up because I danced,” Rene said. “I was always forced to prove myself, but I only fought out of necessity.”

Being doubted and asked to prove himself was nothing new to Rene, but one of those doubts was the spark that ignited the fire — a fire that would drive him down the path to becoming a professional boxer.

In 1999, Rene went to live with his father in Bronx, N.Y., after his parents separated. He and his father were watching a boxing match on television, and he told his father that he could be a professional boxer. His father responded with words that he will never forget because they’re tattooed on Rene’s chest.

“My dad said, ‘You don’t have what it takes to be a boxer. You need to learn how to play chess,’” Rene said. “This was the moment that motivated me to prove all my doubters wrong.”

Rene joined the Morris Park Boxing Club, where he trained vigorously for the next two years.

Although his boxing skills and conditioning were the best in his life, Rene felt that he needed more training to become a professional boxer.

In 2001, a 20-year-old Rene decided that the best way to enhance his skills was to join an organization with a distinguished history and tradition of creating professional fighters, the U.S. Army.

“The Army trains you to never quit,” Rene said, thinking back on his reasons for joining. “Not only would it contribute immensely to my boxing skill, but it would refine me as a man and a human being.”

Following basic training in Fort Benning, Ga., Rene went to advanced individual training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After graduating AIT, he was assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash.

Now an Army-qualified healthcare specialist, Rene, could continue navigating the path toward his dream while serving his country. His journey took a detour in 2003, however, which led him to Mosul, Iraq, and a very different kind of fighting. During his 13-month deployment, Rene would receive the combat medic badge for saving his fellow Soldiers’ lives while under enemy fire.

In 2005, Rene reenlisted and was assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, he managed to find time to train at his old D.C. gym in between his 12- to 16-hour work shifts.

“I trained hard and was ready to fight,” Rene said.

But after 2 years of rigorous training and a busy work schedule, the 26-year-old-medic received permanent change of station orders that would send him to the 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division at Baumholder, Germany in 2007.

Rene’s morale was boosted when he heard from fellow Soldiers that Baumholder was the epicenter of boxing in Germany.

However, he was called to duty and deployed to Iraq again in 2008 — this time the fight was in Sadr City. It was a long and taxing 15-month deployment that took a toll on Rene’s body and boxing skills.

While he was deployed, Rene said he trained, but it wasn’t a typical boxing regiment. At 5 feet, 9 inches, he focused heavily on weight-lifting and bulked up to around 218 pounds, which didn’t help his boxing aspirations — he became too big and lost his speed.

His unit redeployed in May 2009, and Rene hit the gym hard. He cut down to his optimal fighting weight, 175 pounds. He began traveling to gyms throughout the region, fighting at Army boxing events, and training with the German Olympic Boxing Team and German Bundesliga.

“I’ve learned a lot more about boxing by training in Germany,” Rene said, regarding the difference in U.S. and international boxing styles.

According to Rene, “slugfests” are common with the U.S. fighting style, unlike the international boxing style which focuses on footwork and technique, “hitting and not getting hit.”

The training provided Rene the edge he needed in the ring. But two days before a scheduled fight in Wiesbaden, Germany, Rene went another round with adversity.

He sustained a neck injury during a sparring session. Rene said the injury didn’t surface until the following day, when he reached down to blouse his trousers and ripped a tendon in his finger because his neck stiffened and prevented him from reaching his boot. The fight was canceled.

The doctor’s final verdict was that he had a herniated disk in his neck. This would put Rene’s dreams on hold for six months as he recovered from the injury.

“I’m thinking, ‘I have to get out of (this injured state) as fast as I can. I’m getting older and I can’t let the injury get me down,’” the 28-year-old said. “I’m calling my coaches back in the states for guidance and direction.”

After a much-needed pep talk from Hughes, aka “Mr. Gene,” Rene attacked his injury by following the neck-strengthening regimen prescribed by his therapist and began training again.

In September 2009, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Europe Office of the Command Surgeon General in Heidelberg, Germany — that’s where everything started to fall in place.

“At Fort Lewis it was a deployment, at Walter Reed it was the work schedule and a PCS, at Baumholder it was a deployment and neck injury, now here, in Heidelberg, nothing is holding me back from reaching my potential,” Rene said.

After fighting through multiple adversities, Rene, now a sergeant, showcased his potential in the ring by winning the Installation Management Command-Europe Championship in September 2010, and placing third at the 2011 All-Army Boxing Team tryouts at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in February 2011.

Then, he placed second at the 2012 All-Army Boxing Team tryouts, which qualified him for the 2012 USA Boxing National Championships that were held Feb. 27 through March 3 at Fort Carson, Colo.

“If I make it to the Olympics, it will be beyond a dream,” said Rene, who credits the Army with teaching him how to continue moving forward while dealing with adversity. “As a kid, I dreamed of being an Olympic boxer. It’s my chance to prove everyone wrong. Basic training and advanced individual training taught me how to make the body work. There were things I didn’t know were physically possible, but when my brain tells me to quit, I know my body can keep going for hours.”

“Amateur-level boxing is a nine-minute fight,” Rene said. “All I have to do is box for nine minutes. Is that it? The Army trains you to go well beyond nine minutes. Those nine minutes may be tough, but I know I can keep going no matter what the guy throws at me. I’ve fought for my country on the battlefield, and I want to fight for my country in the ring.”

Unfortunately, two weeks before his debut at the USA Boxing National Championships, Rene received devastating news. Josh, his 20-year-old brother, passed away from cancer on Valentine’s Day.

“The last time I saw Josh, he looked pretty bad, but I didn’t notice it because of the way he carried himself,” Rene said. “No matter how bad or sick cancer made Josh feel, you never knew it because of the way he handled himself. I got used to him being able to recover from his sickness, but this last time, he died on Valentine’s Day, and it hit me hard. I thought I could still fight, but once I saw the memorial, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t feel like doing anything.”

Grief stricken, Rene did not compete in the National Championships, thus forfeiting the opportunity to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

After Josh’s funeral, Rene said he reflected on his younger brother’s life, and the way he lived while battling cancer. That inspired Rene to pursue his boxing dream with even more passion. He started training again and is scheduled to compete in upcoming tournaments.

“Now, every time I’m in the gym, I’m fighting like it’s the very last time I’m going to fight,” Rene said. I’m throwing every punch like it’s my last punch, because I know that is what Josh would do.”