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W hen Adam Zmiewsky was struggling with alcoholism five years ago, he taped a brochure of a man ice climbing to his desk.
He didn’t know it was a goal at the time.
But when he checked out of the Center for Dependency, Addiction and Rehabilitation in Aurora several years later, he immediately joined Phoenix Multisport, an active sober community for recovering drug and alcohol addicts, and began indoor rock climbing with the group. He’d heard about it during his 60-day treatment.
Two years later, 30-year-old Zmiewsky is still climbing, still sober and still thankful that Phoenix was there when he got out of rehab.
For Zmiewsky and others, Phoenix founder Scott Strode is literally a life changer. For his work, Strode was nominated for the CNN Hero of the Year award; last week he made it to the top 10 finalists. The winner, announced in December, receives a $250,000 grant.
“I don’t know what my life would be like right now if they weren’t there when I got out, but luckily they were,” Zmiewsky said, his voice trailing off, before a Wednesday night climbing session with Phoenix at the Boulder Rock Club.
Phoenix founder Strode is himself a recovering addict, so he understands the need for a new social circle and activities after getting clean. He had his first beer when he was 11.
“We all have our experiences as children,” Strode said. “My self-worth was pretty low and when I found alcohol, I pretty much right away felt a release by self-medicating those feelings.”
He dropped out of high school and found himself in Boston, drinking and using cocaine for much of his young adult life.
At age 24, Strode said he realized he was hurting himself and people around him. He started climbing, then boxing. At the gym he found a group of athletic, talented sportsmen who gave little thought to drugs and alcohol.
Strode began climbing and hiking in the nearby White Mountains of New Hampshire and started training for a triathlon. He moved to Boulder a little more than 10 years ago, after a visit made him realize he wanted to live near the mountains, and founded Phoenix Multisport in 2007.
“There was a community here that already had an understanding of the transformative power of athletic endeavors,” he said of founding Phoenix in Boulder.
Strode, 39, has been sober for 15 years. He’s completed seven Ironman triathlons and climbed in the Himalayas and Alaska. He founded Phoenix when he realized he could share the incredible joy these experiences brought him.
“There was a time where I needed to do those events for me,” he said. “I realized there came a time where it wasn’t as fulfilling if I wasn’t sharing those experiences with other people.”
Phoenix Multisport has served more than 6,000 individuals in Colorado since 2007. Every day Strode receives emails from across the country from people asking him to start a Phoenix chapter in their community.
Last year, Bob Balfour visited Strode to take away some ideas for his own Boston-based recovery group, Runners in Recovery, which he founded 15 years ago. Many people have run their first Boston Marathon because of their involvement with Balfour’s group.
“I was 100 percent amazed at what I saw,” Balfour said of Phoenix Multisport in a phone interview from Boston. “It would be a dream program for anyone involved in recovery. Everyone says you can’t, but Scott Strode did.”
Balfour said he hopes to someday bring Phoenix to Boston, where recovery addicts are plagued with boredom and a ‘Now what?’ feeling after they get clean, he said. Strode said he hopes to expand to other states within the next two years.
For Strode, participating in athletic activities gives recovering addicts a way to redefine themselves. No longer “alcoholics” or “users,” Phoenix members start thinking “climber” and “cyclist,” Strode said.
“As we progress, we realize ‘I’m also a good son, or a good coworker, and a good friend,'” Strode said. “It helps us view ourselves in a new light and with a new identity.”
–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.