Header image: Angie Richardson and Tawnya Kristen leading class in the popular “Bring Sally Up” back squat strength piece.
It’s a cloudy Saturday outside Green Mountain CrossFit in Central Vermont, and the 20 or so athletes in attendance have formed an oval inside the gym for the start of a midday class. Tawnya Kristen, the class leader and Executive Director of the local chapter of the United Way, stands at the head, donning a gray sweatshirt that reads, “Life Is Good.” She welcomes the group by telling everyone that they’re in a safe place, and reminds them that they need to have at least 48 hours of continuous sobriety to participate. Then she asks everyone to share with the rest of the group a time that they “shined their light.”
One woman says she talks on a regular basis with a friend who struggles with addiction, and she hopes their chats are helping him through his struggles. One man—it’s his first time there—wants to make some positive changes to his health, he says. The last to share, an athlete named Megan, tells the group that she had a hard week. A family member relapsed and she didn’t think she could handle it. She went to her room after hearing the news and sat on the edge of her bed with her head in her hands. Megan told the group that she closed her eyes and pictured all of them standing there—and that gave her strength. “Phoenix is that light; it’s always on,” she said. Kristen walked over and gave Megan a hug, and the group clapped.
Then they started their WOD.
The Phoenix is a free, active community for people living sober lives after suffering from substance-use disorders. Scott Strode founded The Phoenix after he got sober and was looking for something different from the normal 12-step programming. He took up boxing at a gym in Boston, where he found others with similar backgrounds. From there, he started training for triathlons and took up rock climbing, cycling, and swimming. Along the way, he continued to find sober and healthy friends within active communities.
“The birth of Phoenix really happened with Scott looking for people to hang around with,” says Chris Daggett, a senior instructor with The Phoenix. “He was looking for friendship and community outside of the 12-step community.”
Strode founded the first Phoenix location in Boulder, Colorado, in 2007. From there, locations were established in Boston, Denver, Colorado Springs, and California. Activities for participants are all free and include CrossFit, yoga, boxing, camping, rock climbing, and even art. Daggett stresses that the program offers more than just free CrossFit classes—it’s a welcoming, safe, and nurturing environment free of stigma for those working to stay sober.
In the last year, after hundreds of requests for new locations filled Phoenix inboxes and voicemails (Daggett says people were calling and begging for the programming for family members in recovery), the organization decided to create a remote programming model, an initiative that utilizes established partners within communities—like CrossFit gyms and yoga studios—so they can expand without having to go through the time-intensive and costly process of establishing physical Phoenix locations. The new model led to 40 new Phoenix programming incarnations across the country in one year. Central Vermont is one of those satellites, having started in December of 2018.
The remote programming uses sober volunteers and instructors trained by the Phoenix and relies on word-of-mouth marketing from participants. Most crucially, the model also needs people like Kristen. Daggett refers to her as a “champion”: someone deeply connected to the local community who can help put the programming in place and keep it running. Daggett says that, because of the level of stigma that comes with recovery, it can be challenging to convince gym owners to welcome The Phoenix into their spaces. Champions like Kristen, who are already trusted by these locations, can help transcend that barrier.
“They’re thinking there’s going to be a bunch of high people hanging out at their gym, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we are and what we do,” Daggett says. “The opposite of addiction is community and connection.”
Kristen, already a CrossFit athlete, helped establish The Phoenix’s model in Central Vermont after learning about it from an acquaintance who works in the recovery field (that acquaintance now volunteers at those Saturday CrossFit classes). The programming was so popular from the outset that it quickly expanded to a yoga studio and another CrossFit gym nearby. It also recently started up in Burlington, some 40 miles north of the Central Vermont location.
“We’ve taken off quickly,” Kristen says of the Vermont programming. The classes appeal to younger folks—Kristen guesses that part of it is the loud music and adrenaline rush—as well as older people who are welcomed and supported for showing up. “I’m not quite sure what the secret sauce is, so to say. It’s a combination of multiple community partners coming together and understanding that collaboration and human connection needs to be explored and combined with CrossFit, or any fitness . . . It’s totally the human connection.”
That connection is kind of getting back to what CrossFit was originally meant to be: bringing people together to work out, Kristen says. And that works for those looking to stay sober, who are looking for a new community outside of old ones that might be rife with addiction. The Saturday classes are so powerful, so filled with understanding and support, that Kristen refers to them as “magic time.”
“I don’t know if you notice, but every time people come into that room there’s a light about them—there’s no darkness,” Kristen says. “They walk in, and it’s even brighter when they leave. There’s something to be said for that. Addiction and recovery don’t have to be surrounded by darkness, you know? There’s a lot of light to be found there.”
For Megan, The Phoenix helped “lift a cloud” from her life. After struggling with addiction in her family and on her own, she made a commitment to herself and to her sons to get healthy.
“I was always super intimidated by Crossfit; I thought it was for elite athletes,” she says. “I thought, there’s no way I can do that. But when I came in and I saw people of all different shapes and sizes and all different walks of life doing it and being successful and feeling great, I was like, ‘This is it.’”
Megan started training with The Phoenix this past February and now attends weekly, in addition to taking a few more CrossFit classes throughout the week. The past few years had been so stressful for her that she was always exhausted; she was constantly in “fight-or-flight mode,” she says. She sees a big difference in how she felt before and how she feels now.
“I had something really stressful happen, and my thought was, ‘Oh, my God, I need a drink.’ And then I was like, ‘Wait a second: If you can do 100 pushups in 20 minutes, you probably don’t need to pick up that beer,’” Megan says. “The feeling of success that I feel here every day and that The Phoenix program gives me has only helped me be more successful in all areas of my life. I break everything down now like a workout. I’m learning to set short-term goals but have a big vision.”
The Phoenix has served a little over 28,000 people since it started; Daggett estimates that it’s introduced more than 8,000 people to CrossFit. After last year’s flurry of expansion with the remote-programming model—something he says they managed with a very small team of people—the nonprofit plans to spend 2019 making sure those remote programs are doing well before gearing up for more growth. They’re also spending this year focusing on fundraising: The Phoenix just launched a new platform allowing teams of people to raise funds.
“Recovery is based on physical, mental, and spiritual components, and usually the spiritual and mental components get worked on through 12-step and therapy, but that physical part gets left out. So when you add that piece in, it’s really holistic recovery for folks,” Daggett says.
When it all comes down to it, Daggett says that the safe, welcoming nature of the program and the human connection that Kristen stresses are integral in making The Phoenix so appealing to participants.
“It’s just a matter of being kind to one another.”
For more information about The Phoenix, visit ThePhoenix.org.