August 10, 2012

Phoenix Rising

How Scott Strode’s passion for outdoor sports grew into a network of recovery, community and identity for thousands.

By Steve Diogo by a Denver homeless shelter is a doorway that’s a portal to the great outdoors. And for many people new to recovery, it’s also a passage to a new identity and a lifetime of sober connections forged through shared effort, endurance and fellowship.

That portal is the building that houses the Denver Chapter of Phoenix Multisport, and the only requirements for joining the group that gathers there are 48 hours of sobriety and an agreement to leave outside the door anything that isn’t nurturing.

Phoenix Multisport is a recovery community centered on exercise and outdoor adventure. The group offers training and guided experiences in everything from yoga to rock and ice climbing, mountaineering, mountain biking and triathlon training. Twice a year, the group plans major outings: a three-day camping trip to Moab, Utah, in June and a climbing, skiing and snowboarding expedition in January to ring in the new year in icy style in Ouray, Colo.

Although sport and outdoor adventure are what draws the group together, Founder and Executive Director Scott Strode says the focus is on building sober friendships, repairing self-esteem and forging new  identities. Currently, the group has chapters in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, but with more than 5,000 members affiliated with the Colorado locations alone, plans are in the works to expand the nonprofit organization to other states.

Rising From Ashes

Phoenix Multisport rose from the ashes of Strode’s own addiction and recovery. Strode grew up on the East Coast and began drinking when he was 10. By the time he was 15, he was into heavy drugs. From 15 to 24 marked a series of failed attempts, mostly enforced at first, to get sober. In his teens, Strode got shipped off for a semester at sea for teens in trouble. And although the experience didn’t stop his using, it sparked a love affair with the outdoors that would eventually provide the key to his recovery.

“I had my first experience with nature,” Strode says of the experience. “That moment of realizing how small you are. The ocean is humbling that way. It made a connection with me, but it didn’t change the way I was living. At 24, I decided to make a change, but I didn’t know how. Around the same time, I started going to a boxing gym, and I met some guys there who were in recovery.”

Those men became his fellowship.

“Between that experience and going climbing in the mountains of New Hampshire, sports and the outdoors became a big part of my recovery,” Strode says. “I found that every time I overcame a challenge, whether it was getting in the boxing ring or completing a challenging climb, I made a little more progress in repairing my self-esteem.”

By the time Strode had eight years sober, he had raced seven Iron Man Triathlons, completed 24-hour mountain bike races and climbed in the Himalayas. At the same time, he says, he saw other people new in recovery who were living in isolation, white-knuckling it and fearful of relapse.

“I know that place, and it can be really scary,” Strode says. “What helped me was getting involved in all these activities. I started to look forward in my life and dream about who I could be instead of focusing on who I had been in my addiction.”

From that realization grew the idea for Phoenix Multisport.

After a few years sober, Strode had moved to Colorado and was working as a personal trainer. He was training for a triathlon, and while on a ride with a training partner one day, the ideas and motivation that would become Phoenix all came together.

“We just started this dialogue about how I wished there was a way for people in recovery to come together and connect like this. I had experience with the camaraderie that people find in running groups and cycling clubs, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we start it?’ And just like those other clubs, why can’t it be free? We shouldn’t have to pay for fellowship.”

The Phoenix name and logo came quickly, and a simple website, got things rolling. The first events were a weekly bike ride, hike and climbing night. Three people joined—one for each event. In 2007, the group got nonprofit status, and the Phoenix arose fully formed. Today, the organization is funded through grants and private donations. It has three chapters, and expansion plans are underway. Members pay what they can and get access to training and sports equipment that normally would be far beyond the means of someone in early recovery. The organization also partners with area treatment programs to provide access to facilities, trips and, most importantly, connections, that Strode says create a safety net and support system for people when they come out of treatment. Today, more than 5,000 people are affiliated with Phoenix Multisport.

Strength Through Shared Challenge

Reams of data support the positive effects of exercise on recovery, from building physical health harmed through years of abuse to improving brain chemistry and even rebuilding brain structure. Programs such as Outward Bound have a long track record of success in strengthening behavioral change through overcoming physical challenges in structured outdoor experiences. What Phoenix does, Strode says, is blend these two approaches and focus them on building community for people in recovery. It’s all about community building through shared challenge and shared celebration.“Phoenix is not about just taking people climbing,” Strode says. “It’s about teaching people to be a climber. Then they have their own group of friends they’ve met through Phoenix, and they can go out and climb on their own. If we’re succeeding, then our members are building a larger sober network, and that’s where they’re going for support.”

The bikes and climbing equipment are simply tools.

“If you and I go for a bike ride together, the bike is a tool that takes away the social anxiety,” Strode explains. “We don’t have to talk; it’s just about the ride. But at the end, we’ve completed a shared experience, and now we have a bond. When human beings are shoulder to shoulder tackling a shared adversity—whether it’s a triathlon or a mountain—they build a bond, and in that bond is where we find our new friendships and our new identities. The exercise is just the entry point. The community is where the power is.”

For people new to recovery, people who often have trouble navigating the basic elements of human interaction, anything that takes away social anxiety is a plus, Strode says. And it is for this reason that members sign an agreement that states anything that is not nurturing is not welcome. Beyond using drugs and alcohol, this includes any behavior or speech that could be considered threatening to someone else. So beyond training newcomers in the fine skills of climbing, the staff strives to model proper social behavior and guide newcomers in the art of social interaction and building friendships.

Moving Up

Most of the organization’s staff members know the challenges faced by newcomers because they have lived them. Fifteen of the program’s 19 full-time staff members started as program participants and worked their way up to staff.

Rourke Weaver, who manages the Denver chapter, got sober in April 2007, three months after Phoenix started. He says the group provided a foundation for his recovery as he struggled to figure out how to fit together the pieces of his life. In the end, Phoenix would help fit many of them.

“I was on the Ouray trip, and I used to be a snowboard instructor back in the day, so Scott invited me to come along,” Weaver says. “And it was on that trip that it clicked for me that maybe I could do this for a living. So I spent the next year and a half bugging Scott for a job, and eventually he hired me.”

Bugging Strode seems to be a prerequisite for a job at Phoenix. Elizabeth Meade was three years sober and living in Oklahoma when she heard about Phoenix at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention in San Antonio.

“I decided then and there I would work for this organization,” says Meade, who was already a certified trainer. “I moved to Colorado almost a year later with no job. I just started volunteering at Phoenix, and eventually, a job opened up for me. I set that intention and came true within a year.”

Meade and Weaver speak of Phoenix not as a job but as a mission.

“On a selfish level, it feeds the part of me that wanted to do something with my life after I got sober that wasn’t just a 9-to-5 job,” says Weaver, who grew up in Colorado with a love of the outdoors. “Here I’m part of something meaningful. It’s also something that helps the community I live in and affects more than just myself. It’s a perfect fit.”

To Moab and Beyond

As interviews for this article were underway, Strode and his team were gearing up for their annual outing to Moab, where they would join 100 Phoenix team members for three days of camping, cycling, climbing, hiking and hanging out by the campfire. And although anyone with a love of the outdoors would be pumped for the activities, Strode and the other team members seem stoked mostly about the hanging out, for it’s there, they say, in the glow of the campfire after a day of shared challenge and overcoming obstacles together, that bonds are formed that carry the recovering activity safely through the rapids that can churn up anyone’s life.

To the future, Strode looks forward to expanding the Phoenix Multisport experience to people throughout the United States. He is currently building networks in southern California, New York and San Francisco. His dream is for each new chapter to host its own signature event; then Phoenix members would have events to look forward to throughout the year. They’d travel and mingle and expand their networks and continue, together, to forge their new identities.

Strode pauses while talking about it, and you can almost hear the wheels turning.

“Someday we’ll have 500 people down in Moab, all in recovery, just hanging out,” he says. “It’ll be a blast.”

Click here to learn more about Pheonix Multisport.



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