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Recovery, Community, and Fitness: The Story of The Phoenix

An act of will and a love for fitness have given way to The Phoenix, a sober gym. How community and acceptance may be among the best antidotes to combat addiction

By Melanie Taussig

70,237. That is the number of people who died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2017. Over 20 million Americans continue their battle with alcohol and drug addictions. For those who are struggling, hope can sometimes feel as though it is far beyond reach. That certainly was the case for Rich Falls; he was one of those battling the demons of addiction. Mr. Falls remembers first feeling depressed and out of place while growing up in suburban New Jersey. “I always felt a little weird,” he recalls of his childhood.

By adolescence, Mr. Falls’ mental health issues led him to experimentation with drugs and alcohol. He fell in with “the wrong crowd” and starting using substances regularly, eventually dealing drugs while still in high school. Mr. Falls remembers the sense of acceptance he received from dealing narcotics. “Anything I could do to fit in,” he says. “Selling drugs made me feel like I fit in. People called me and wanted to hang out because they wanted drugs. None of that mattered to me, all that mattered was that people were calling. I just needed attention and negative attention was better than none.”

That was almost twenty years ago. Today Mr. Falls has been sober for more than ten years. He is a Peer Recovery and Fitness Coach at The Phoenix, a sober gym and nonprofit organization in Denver, where he helps others afflicted by addiction issues. Reflecting upon his journey over the past fifteen years, Mr. Falls says that getting to this point has been far from easy, but it has been worth it. The acceptance and belonging he has found at The Phoenix has helped him to stay sober and find joy. He largely credits the program’s supportive structure for empowering him through his sobriety.

The Phoenix is the innovation of Scott Strode, who founded the organization in 2006 in a small space in Boulder, Colorado. Prior to that, Mr. Strode was all too familiar with the hardships of substance abuse; he had been battling his own addiction for years. During his recovery journey, Mr. Strode found a sense of vigor from an unlikely source: rock climbing. The exhilaration he felt while climbing impelled him to develop a community-based program that promoted fitness on the surface but was actually founded on the idea of inclusion, something that is not easily found for many who are in recovery.

To date, The Phoenix has helped more than 33,000 people throughout the U.S. The national headquarters are in Denver, Colorado and there are over 40 other locations nationally that offer free programs. There are no initiation fees to join and no dues to maintain a membership; this is a place that is open to everyone. As stated on their website, “the only membership fee is 48 hours of continuous sobriety.” At The Phoenix, there is an offering of daily workout classes and almost every activity one could think of: mountain biking, cycling, running, yoga, boxing, group fitness, climbing and hiking, among others. “It’s free and accessible to everybody,” says Mr. Falls, explaining that the inviting atmosphere was created to foster a sense of connection among members. Although The Phoenix is not a treatment program, having a reliable support system has been shown to help people be successful in recovery. If a member expresses a desire for treatment, staff work collaboratively with other community resources and can provide referrals to mental health and addiction counselors.

For Mr. Falls, it was a serendipitous happenstance in 2017 that brought him to The Phoenix. In and out of rehab since he was a teenager, in 2009 Mr. Falls reached a point where he had exhausted all other options and knew he needed help to overcome his addiction. He made a difficult call to his mother that would change the trajectory of his life’s path. He confronted his addiction head on and asked his mother for help. With his parents’ assistance, Mr. Falls entered residential treatment in Florida and completed the program later that same year. Finally, Mr. Falls had arrived at a point where he was invested in staying sober.

“I wanted to use my experience to give back to the recovery community,” says Mr. Falls. He worked in various treatment centers throughout Florida, eventually becoming a case manager. He recalls that one day a then-colleague approached him and said, “check out this Ted Talk, I think you’ll really dig it.” He was referring to a Ted Talk presented by Mr. Strode in 2016. Upon watching it, Mr. Falls immediately identified with Mr. Strode’s message of being stronger than his addiction. Coincidently at this very time, Mr. Falls was considering making a geographical change and Colorado was always a place he felt drawn to. As luck would have it, The Phoenix was searching for a Peer Recovery Coach and Mr. Falls applied for the position. In a turn of events that Mr. Falls ascribes to good timing, fortune, and perseverance, he got the job.

Within a few weeks, Mr. Falls and his fiancé were headed west to Colorado for an auspicious new start. Since becoming part of the team at The Phoenix, Mr. Falls has found a sense of acceptance and belonging. Ironically, it was these very things he yearned for earlier in his life. He feels fortunate to be able to help others discover the sense of community that he has spent a lifetime pursuing. Today Mr. Falls can be found teaching cross-fit or leading trail runs. He also enjoys the organic conversations that naturally transpire between staff and members. “The Phoenix is a really good place to not always be thinking about recovery,” says Mr. Falls, not oblivious to the irony that The Phoenix community is mostly comprised of individuals who are in recovery. “People can come here and if they want to talk about recovery, we’ll talk about recovery, but if they want to come in here and they just want to lift, then that’s what we are here for.”

Looking around, one would not know The Phoenix is anything beyond its outward appearance of a gym. However, a closer look reveals a banner that reads, “Saving Lives Through Fitness.” The people who are at the heart of The Phoenix community know that this place is about much more than just fitness. The foundation of The Phoenix is its community, consisting of members and staff who are guided by Mr. Strode’s vision. “Fitness has lent itself really well to the recovery community,” says Mr. Falls “but if bird watching is what brought people together and built community, then The Phoenix would be a bird watching club. Community is what we are really about.”

It is the words of Mr. Strode that resonate with so many who come to The Phoenix. “We are all rising from the ashes of something.” That is the philosophy that ultimately guides The Phoenix community. When the doors first opened, it was Mr. Strode’s own experience with addiction that influenced his outlook of acceptance and inclusion. This is why the doors at The Phoenix are “open to everyone.” There is a saying that permeates within the space surrounded by the gym walls: “Per ignem ad astra,” a Latin phrase which, when translated, means “Through the fire, to the stars.” It is an adage that echoes at The Phoenix; the idea is that “everyone is rising from the ashes of something.” This includes Mr. Falls, who expresses great gratitude for finding fulfillment on his recovery journey and is keenly aware it is just that, a journey. He appreciates the value of each and every single day along the way.

Mr. Falls admits that there are still challenging days. At times he experiences feelings of sadness and sometimes cries about his pain, but he is now at peace with his emotions. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with crying, that’s ok,” he says. Now able to cope with hardships in a healthy way, during difficult moments Mr. Falls may work out, go on a run, or turn to someone among his robust support system.

As he reminisces about his mettle over the years since he got sober, Mr. Falls remembers how difficult it was to initially reach out for help. He recalls feelings of hopelessness during that time. Looking around and taking in the grandeur of the surroundings at The Phoenix, he is humbled. “There are so many reasons for people to be hopeful” he says, referring to the millions who are struggling like he once did. Reflecting through his own lens, Mr. Falls knows it can be hard to have faith but that things can improve even amid the deep despair of addiction. He has evidence all around him that betterment is possible and Mr. Falls wants to impart that message to others. Years later he still feels grateful for making that call to his mother. “I’m most proud of taking that first step and saying ‘I need help,’” he says. “Without doing that, I wouldn’t be here right now.”

To learn more about The Phoenix, to find a location near you, or to make a donation, visit their website.

Rich Falls Rich Falls, Peer Recovery and Fitness Coach at The Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Mr. Falls.
Scott Strode, Founder of The Phoenix. Photo courtesy of Mr. Strode. Scott Strode