What has been one of the most challenging things that you have experienced, or are currently experiencing?
“The most challenging thing I’ve experienced, and am still experiencing, is overcoming mental illness, addiction to alcohol and drugs. That’s the number one thing. I’ve been battling it for over a decade. It’s ruined over half my life. I go back to the days of childhood. People look at it as a disease. I think it runs in the family, but also stems from my childhood—my mother being an addict for ten years.
“My father, I know he was a gambling addict. I’m not sure if he was an alcoholic. I should ask that question. Grandparents. It also stems from a mental standpoint. As a kid, I was molested, my father died at a young age, I was five years old, he was fifty-two when he died. I was going through physical abuse from my mother’s boyfriends at the time. I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd at the wrong time at the wrong age.
“At that age, around ten years old, I was surrounded by drugs, sex, alcohol, anything you could think of that a young boy at that age shouldn’t be surrounded by. It was really leading to a path of self-destruction. That’s kind of where this battle began. I think a lot of what I experienced in my past, all that at the age of 10, to having to deal with my mother do her best trying to put food on the table. And she did a great job at that, she was a great mother, but dealing with her own struggles at the time.
“This battle has been long. It went into high school. I started using when I was fourteen or fifteen, I don’t remember. I was using everything that was in front of me. I was a full-blown alcoholic and addict. In my eyes, I was a terrible person at the time. I didn’t care about anyone else, but myself. During that time, I developed a panic attack disorder, which my doctor said I was born with. I thought it was something that a drug or drinking gave me, but I think that escalated it.
“I think I was born with some sort of disorder, maybe my mom being an addict when she had me. My battles with alcohol and drugs and addiction and mental illness, it has led me to suicidal ideations. Losing Division One scholarship offers for sports. It has put me in severe depression. Terrible thoughts and anger. Having to battle all of that also as a result of alcohol, drug addiction and mental illness. All of that ended up in something terrible.
“There were challenges, and I had to face consequences. I was in prison at a young age. At seventeen, I was in prison. I was in boot camps. I checked myself into rehab three times. It seemed to never work out. I’d stay sober for periods of time and not work on myself, and go back to being self-destructive. Not caring about the loved ones around me. It was very hard. It still is something that I’m not ashamed of today, but it’s something I battle every day. I look at alcoholism and mental illness as a disease, you just gotta get through it.
“For me, at that time, in the midst of all of that, I was able to meet a girl who I fell in love with. I was engaged. We ended up having a beautiful daughter. I fought back there to the person who I really was, a loving, caring person who cared about others more than himself. That’s what showed when I was clean. When I’m using, I’m not myself.
“Once I knew I was going to be a father, I was clean for about a year. That was my new challenge, to be a father. It was something I always wanted. I got sober for a year, battled these fights with addiction. I went to AA meetings two or three times a week. Getting more involved and connecting more with my fiancée at the time. Getting involved in Lamaze classes, learning more about being a father, looking up baby names. Things that I always pictured happening in my future, it was happening for me at a young age. I was twenty-three when I proposed. I was twenty-four when my daughter was born. That’s not the youngest in the world, but it’s still pretty young for a person battling a disease and addiction and mental illness.
“At the time, I thought I had everything figured out. I stopped going to AA. I thought going to Florida would be a great idea, just so my daughter would grow up in a place that I could afford. The life that I went through, living in crummy places. Knowing how cheap rent was in Florida, living in the south prior to that. Just thought I had it all figured out, and I really didn’t. The challenge was down there now. My fiancée didn’t have family there, I don’t have much family, besides my daughter and my mother who is in Florida. She didn’t have a support system down there. I had some friends down there, and my mother was down there. She really didn’t have anyone to go to when she wasn’t focused on our daughter.
“We lost the connection there. I got out of control, and the addiction set in. I relapsed. I was so involved in drugs and alcohol; I didn’t know if I loved my fiancée any more. I loved my daughter, and I will always love my daughter. I promised that I always would be there in my daughter’s life, and never leave.
“After I relapsed again, I went through a long stretch of drinking and drugging and in self-destruct mode. I think I was depressed knowing that my fiancée and I were done, knowing that this is over. I didn’t know what my future really held for me. We packed up. We mutually agreed that we’d split for our child and for us. We agreed to be good parents. She had family in Connecticut. I never really liked Connecticut. It just had bad memories for me. I didn’t want to come back to a place where there was bad influence. But at the end of the day, there’s bad influence everywhere. I’m good at finding them.
“I decided I was going to pack my car up and come back to Connecticut and not leave my daughter behind. A lot of people wanted me to stay. People even offered me a place in their house. One my friends down there had a four-bedroom house and he offered me a room in his house. He was like, ‘Dude, stay.’ You can have one of these rooms, just don’t go back.
“Even that was a challenge because, and I had to challenge my alcoholism and my addiction because in my mind, those addictions could have said, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea,’ and then I wouldn’t have my daughter with me right now. Somewhere in there I found my heart and I went back to Connecticut. I slept out of my car for a while there. My best friend’s family took me in, they took me under their wing for a while. I have nothing but love for them, and gratitude. But I ended up messing up there, and leaving there and drinking again. I felt like this challenge was never going to end.
“I’m a fighter, I’m a survivor, man. I’ve come back from a lot of stuff in my life. Getting over that and trying to get through losing five of my friends, including one that I looked at like a brother, to drugs and alcohol. With everything I had gone through in the past, I was just ready to give up. That was really the final challenge that was put there. Do you give up on your daughter or yourself?
“I know I’m a good person. I have kindness in my heart. I believe I’m one of the nicest people you could meet. I didn’t have the chance to showcase that because I was blinded by drugs and alcohol. My demons in the past. My anger problems. Frustration; why couldn’t I get clean and keep my fiancée and my kid? Why couldn’t I do these things? It was always why, why, why and a sob story.
“I was so rock bottom at one point, I was contemplating suicide. Maybe leaving my kid behind. I made a promise. But you can never really make a promise. I promised she wouldn’t be in a broken home. I promised her a better life than I had. I still give her that, I know that, she’ll still have that life. But a broken home, I hate to look at it that way, but that’s the way it is. At that time, I wasn’t thinking about that. I thought she’d be better off without me. I really did. If I took off somewhere, if I committed suicide, if I took off before she was old enough to really know who I was, maybe she’d be OK.
“Her mother is great. She’s a fantastic mother. Her mother loves her to death. But that’s where I was. My mindset at that time was bad. I was out drinking. I couldn’t sleep. I was drinking until six. At one point I was drinking to hopefully not wake up. I just didn’t care anymore. I just wanted to not wake up and not deal with life. I don’t know what it was, but something woke me up.
“Once again, I had to battle back. I couldn’t look in the mirror for a long time. I was ashamed of who I was. I was depressed, I was suicidal, I was sick and I couldn’t get help. AA was there, but I was too hardheaded to go there. Something woke me up. I don’t know what it was. I woke up and I said, ‘you’re not going to go out like this. It’s not going to happen.’ I decided you’re going to fight this. You’re too tough. You can do it all. You can get through this. And I really thought I was done because there are only so many times you can… all my friends would say, ‘You’re going to get out of this again,’ or ‘You’re going to keep doing this.’ You’re tough, you’re a survivor, you’re this, you’re that. There’s only so much somebody can take. But once again I got up.
“I think God wants me here for a reason. He made me wake up every day, even when I wanted to die. I think he wants me here to help others. I went back to AA. I devoted myself to getting clean. I started working out again. I started running. I started reading. I started reading The Bible. I started reading the AA books. I finally got a sponsor and started working the program. I was in it this time.
“I went cold turkey. I detoxed by myself. Going through detox is brutal. Some of the worst feelings. I’ve done it three, four, maybe five times. I don’t even know. I’ve lost count. That’s somewhere I never want to be again. Those first ninety days, thirty days of getting clean are the hardest. The first two days, the first day, it’s so hard. At that time, that right there, that was my last chance. I really thought I was done. I’m not coming back from this one, I’m out. But, I got up and I fought, man.
“I fought and I’m ten months clean. I’m in a place of sobriety that I never thought I’d be. Stronger than ever. Doing things in the world I never thought I’d be doing. Ten months ago I was done. I was a mess. I couldn’t do anything. Now I’ve found something that helps me. It’s a culmination of things. It’s sharing my story, it’s helping other people understand not just what I’ve been through, but what others have been through and how they can come back, too. That was the biggest challenge of my life.
“It’s worked out. Now, it’s crazy. I’m a professional athlete. It was always my dream to be involved in athletics and sports. I lost my dream of baseball many years ago to drugs and alcohol. Now I found racing. Obstacle course racing. I’m sponsored. I’m one of the top 8 percent in the world and that’s really saved me. It’s not the biggest part of the story, but it shows what you can do when you set your mind to it. And that’s what I’ve done and I continue to do it. It’s one day at a time.
“I’m still facing challenges today. You wake up and there are bumps in the road, even when you’re sober, people think your life’s great. People see me in articles and on ESPN and all this stuff and see medals and pictures on Instagram and they think life is great. But you still have to work hard, it’s a fight every day. Just because this has all happened doesn’t mean I can’t go back to square one tomorrow. You stay, you have to fight; you have to be strong. I know if I ever start using again, I don’t think I’ll ever get back.
“I’m more mature now. Right now the challenge is keeping that, one day at a time. That’s the greatest challenge so far in my life.”
Looking back at your childhood, you’re a little boy, you’re exposed to your mother who is battling her own addiction, you’re experiencing a father who is a gambler, that’s an addiction, you’ve experienced molestation, what’s going through your mind as a child? Do you recognize at that age that something is not right? Tell me about what your life was like at that time.
“I was going through my mother and father going through a custody battle with me. My mother and father loved each other to death, but they couldn’t get along. It didn’t work. My mom tells me to this this day she still loves my father, she’ll always love my father even though he’s gone, he passed away. Even though what he did might have been wrong to her, there was always that love there, it just never worked out. Some people can’t be like that; it just doesn’t work.
“As a child going through all of that. I was lost, I was so young, so little. With the molestation, I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anything about sex or what this guy was doing to me. At the time, I was scared, I was threatened. You tell anyone, ‘I’ll kill you,’ I was just a young boy. It finally got to the point where I realized what was going on with the molestation part of it and I didn’t tell anybody, but it stopped. I forget how it stopped. It was so long ago.
“I realized what was going on, and that it wasn’t right. I never told my mother or father. The first person I told was my fiancée. Then I told my mother, and that was about three or four years ago. I finally came clean and told people about that. I had to get it off my chest.
“A few years later, my dad passed away and that was really tough on me. I didn’t find out that he died until a week after he died. Never went to the funeral. Never read an article about this death. It was the following day, I was a boy, and we were driving by his work in Stamford. Every time we’d drive by I’d ask my mom if we could stop and see dad. Go in and see dad. That’s when she said to me, and she was hesitant at the time, she was going through some stuff. And she told me, ‘Dad’s gone, you’re not going to see dad again.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And she said, ‘Your dad died. He’s dead.’ It was obviously very hard for her to tell me at that time. As a kid, I was only five years old but I knew what that meant. I kind of lost it there.
“After that, she had boyfriends here and there. I don’t know if they ever really cared about me, until later in my life. At the time, she was just trying to take care of me and make sure I was okay.
“Throughout that, she went through some physical abuse that I had to witness. I went through some physical abuse from her boyfriends. That really just started a damaged boy; a boy that was lost. At that age, you don’t know what the world’s about, really.
So I thought that was all normal stuff.
“From there, it just whirlwinded my life into these demons inside of me as I got older. I went through this crap for years. It took me to the point of I didn’t care about anything. I thought I was some tough guy, some dude. I took everything out in the streets. I was hanging out with the older kids, I was ten years old. I was hanging out in the wrong areas of Stamford, Connecticut. Hanging out with my friends, and older friends who had siblings. I was surrounded by drugs, sex, and alcohol. I wasn’t using them, but I was asking questions, ‘What is this?’ or ‘What are we doing here?’ I’d see people having sex in front of me and I was ten years old. I just thought that was life. I really did. Because I was lost.
“When I was home, it was never good. It had its moments. My mother loved me. She’s not a bad mother at all. She just went through a great deal of stuff. She had her own addictions she had to battle. She has and she’s a great person today. At that time, she had to find a way to put food on the table for me. She had to deal with these boyfriends who I witnessed abuse and would try to help out. But I was too small. I’d just get in the middle of it. Screaming, I’d try to help my mother. It would not turn out well for me. I would just leave and hang out with the wrong people.
“I didn’t care about school. School was more of an outlet for me to go and get my anger out. Get my demons out for what was going on at home. I’d think, I’m going to go to school and start a fight. So there was constantly fights and fights and fights. I was just a punk. People didn’t really know what was going on at my house. What I was was a lost soul, a lost boy. I didn’t have an identity yet. I was just a damaged boy at such a young age. It was not something that a ten-year-old boy should be going through alone without any help. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Were there any teachers or adults that recognized that your behavior was a cry for help and were able to peel away some of the layers to look at why you were behaving the way you were, and get involved? Did you have any experiences like that?
“It was never during the elementary school days. I ended up getting expelled for fighting. I wasn’t going to school. It wasn’t until middle school. I couldn’t live in Stamford anymore. My mom and her boyfriend wanted a better life for me. They knew what would happen if I stayed in Stamford. They moved me to Ridgefield, which was a rich town, well-known for good schools, sports, etc. A place where I could change my life.
“They realized what was going on. They wanted to give me a better life. Even with what was going on with them at home, they still cared about me and wanted me to have a better life. I was in Special Ed. It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. It was because I didn’t go to classes. I didn’t do homework. I didn’t study—I didn’t do any of that stuff.
“There are two people I think about when I think about school. One was Ron Farina. He was my Special Ed teacher in eighth grade. We are really good friends now, which is great. He was a teacher who didn’t know what was going on, but he knew it was something. Maybe he had a past not just like mine, but maybe he grew up rough, too. He could see that in my eyes and he could see it in me. And he saw my athletic ability. Up to eighth grade, he saw what I was capable of doing. But he also saw me skipping class and not doing my work. He was the one who came to me and gave me a helping hand. There’s a special place in my heart for Ron.
“He was one of those guys, he talked to me after school to see how I was doing. See what he could do for me to help me pass. At that time, I just wanted to get through school. I didn’t want to get held back. He didn’t want to see that. He knew I had intelligence in me. He knew that something was going on. So we connected very well. He was a great teacher. It was more than teaching to him, it was helping others. And he wanted to help me. I don’t remember exactly what he told me, but I just know that we’d always have conversations about how I could get my life together. The future and what I wanted to do with my life.
“That was the first time I had a father figure. Someone who understood. He always followed up on me and always cared about me. That’s why we still talk today. We lost contact for a long time. But he used to come to my sports games when I was in high school. My baseball games, my football games. I wasn’t just a student to him. That’s why I care about Ron so much.
“Another one was Frank Ciancio. He was a counselor. He did his best. That was in high school when I was at the downfall of my high school life. These guys knew I was a great athlete. I was getting scholarships to do baseball. I was a three-sport athlete—they knew I had something. Frank did the best he could. He was a good guy, a loyal guy. My father was 100 percent Italian. He was one hundred percent Italian. One of those guys who’d say, ‘John, I can do the best for you, but you’ve got to do this, man.’ He cared for me. He did his best to not get me expelled, but show me the guidance to just do it, and get my head in the books.
“I could be a professional baseball player. He wanted to see me succeed. He wasn’t a teacher who was there for the money. I can read people. I became good at that growing up. He was a good person, a genuine person. I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but hopefully I will speak with him.
“They all try their best, but at the end of the day, it’s in my control. I ended up getting arrested five or six times for alcohol-related incidents. And that forced my expulsion from school. That flushed down my athletic dreams. I had to go to prison. It’s great that those guys were there. I let them down, but I’m making up for it now.”
Was being in prison a wake-up call in any way that maybe your past was impacting your future, and you needed to confront it?
“Once I hit prison, I thought that was the end of it. I thought school’s done. My baseball career is done. I was done. I thought everything was over. Most people that go to prison, they keep going back in. I was told that by somebody one day. ‘Don’t end up in the system.’ I ended up in the system. Was prison a wake up call? Not really to me. I was in that mode of I already went to boot camp. So let’s go to prison now. What’s next?
“It wasn’t fun in there. But eventually your time comes, and I got out. I went right to drinking—immediately. As soon as I got out of the gates I went drinking. I was still on probation; I was on parole. If I got caught…I was guilty of driving drunk, I was breaking the law, I was using drugs and alcohol. I got lucky, I never got caught in the three years of probation I was on. Or I’d be back in there for about five years if I got caught. I’d be back in jail. I’d probably still be in jail for just idiotic things that alcohol and drugs and my past demons and anger all bottled into one, created. They created a damaged human being that didn’t care about the world, or himself.
“It goes back to when I was younger, I thought that was life. Then I thought, oh, this is my life now. I’ll be in and out of jail now. My sports went down the drain. I just want to party. I want to drink. I want to drug. I couldn’t care less about anything else.
“Was prison a wake up call? I never wanted to go back again, but I wasn’t doing anything to stop me from going back. So no, I didn’t learn my lesson. It was just another stint for me.”
Looking back, now that you have some sobriety under your belt, do you recognize your drinking and drugging as your coping skills to numb the experiences and the pain and the shame and the guilt that you were experiencing?
“One-hundred percent. Alcohol is a part of the world. It’s a very big thing in society. There are some people that can have a drink, and that’s normal. But I’m not part of that category. And there are many like me. Once you have something like that that can literally numb you and make you forget about things, and you have access to that, that’s my outlet.
“It’s too easy. If I wanted to forget about things, or numb things, or if I had a bad day, if I thought about something in my past, I’m just going to drink and forget about it and party and drug. Just mess around and numb all of those feelings—until the next morning. That’s the thing. You do all of this stuff and it only numbs the pain for a few hours. For me, it was fifteen because I didn’t stop. I never wanted to lose that feeling. I never wanted the morning to come because I knew I had to deal with life—the real world.
“That’s why I was a binge drinker, a guy who would drink the minute I woke up in the morning. At that time, I felt free. When I was boozing and drugging, I felt normal. It made me forget about everything I had gone through in the past.”
When you would come to in the morning after a binge, was your reality getting better every time you escaped, or was it getting worse?
“It got worse, obviously. That’s one of the reasons I would continue to drink. The problems would pile up and I didn’t want to face them like a man. I didn’t want to deal with it, the anxiety attacks that I had, the panic disorder. The anxiety just grew and grew because the more you drink the more your body wants it. The disease calls for it. You get the shakes, you start sweating—that got worse. That made my life more stressful and anxiety-ridden.
“It was terrible not showing up to jobs, or quitting jobs over and over. I can’t tell you the number of times I had jobs and would just quit due to anxiety or drinking, or just hung over. Every day waking up is a step closer to death and a step closer for me, making my life even worse. That’s what the disease wants you to do. It’s the devil. You continue that behavior, like me, and you drink every day, you keep doing it, you’re going to die.
“I was just lucky enough to not die after losing five of my friends to this illness. I always look in the mirror and say, ‘why me or why not me. Why did my friends go, and I’m still here?’ I think God has a place for me on this Earth, and he put all of these bumps in the road for me to overcome to make me a stronger person. For a reason, I don’t know what it is yet. I think I have an idea, but we’ll just have to find out.”
Looking back on some of your experiences, and those traumas, what have you learned from that? Can you look back and pull out any valuable lessons?
“I’ve learned a lot. You learn from your mistakes, and I’ve made a lot of them. Now, I’m not ashamed to share my story. I’m not ashamed to admit to my mistakes. I could beat around the bush all day about why I went to jail, or why I got expelled or why I lost these scholarships or why my engagement failed. But at the end of the day, it was my alcoholism, and it was me. I admit to what I did, and I’ve got to face those consequences. I put myself in that situation, and I have to face the consequences.
“What I’ve learned from that is, there are consequences for every action you make. Even good ones. Like the quote, no good deed goes unpunished. I always played the blame game. It was never about me. What I’ve learned is, from your mistakes, you grow. It makes you a stronger person. You don’t want those mistakes to happen, but they happen and you can’t dwell on them.
“My mindset now is I can only go from where I am now. Right now, I’m doing great. The past is the past and it’s hard to let it go, especially if you have consequences in the present that have led up from the past. But you have to work around it and really find yourself.
“It’s really about finding yourself and finding that maturity in you to know what’s right and wrong. As I get older, and now that I’m a father, that is clear. I know what’s right and wrong. Am I perfect? Absolutely not. I’m not perfect at all. I’m not better than anybody. Everyone makes mistakes and you just have to pull through and fight through them. Nothing is impossible. If you set your mind to something, you can make it happen. That’s what I believe. If I can do it, anyone can do it.”
What are some of the healthier coping skills that you embrace in your life today now that drinking and drugging is out of the picture?
“Obviously the AA program for me is big. I finally got a sponsor, I worked the steps. I was always hard headed before and in denial, saying I don’t need that and whatnot. I jumped into it and that was awesome. It really does work. That’s not a promise, you have to work at it.
“Thinking of my daughter and that mission I had—even during those bumps in the road—of giving her the life I never had and being a good father. That’s still there. I’m a great father. I don’t see her every day, I wish that I could see her everyday. I see her every week. I love her to death. I’m able to throw her birthday parties. My friends are all supportive of that. They’ve been a great help. They love her.
“Making sure she has a great life is my number one priority. That helps me cope. Knowing that I’m a father and my daughter is taking care of and she’s happy and I can take her to the zoo, and ball games and stuff that I couldn’t do back when I was a mess.
“I’ve found my athleticism, and nature. Nature is beautiful. When you wake up and you see the world without substance, the world is beautiful. I want to see the world. It’s easier said than done. Climbing mountains… I’ve always been a hiker and seeing the view from there. Closing your eyes and relaxing, thinking about how you got there. How good your body feels.
“Running is a big thing for me. Working out. Hanging out with positive role models. My friends are always there. I love my friends. I got rid of the bad influences in my life. Now I’m surrounded by good people. I recently met two people that are also into nature and climbing and racing and hiking and the outdoors. It’s all coping mechanisms for me, and it is their coping mechanisms. It’s something they are passionate about, and I’m passionate about it. It’s what I love. I don’t love being inside.
“It’s something that once you wake up and get help, it takes time. But patience is a virtue. You have to work for it. And you see what your passion is. Others may have multiple passions or one passion that they’ve always had deep down inside of them, but they couldn’t reach it because they were struggling. As they get that time and clear their head, they find out they can reach it, and they go after it.
“That’s what I’m doing. That’s what has led me to having such a great career so far in obstacle course racing. That’s another one training for racing is just awesome because I take those demons and the anger issues that I had and I take that out with me when I train. That makes me stronger, it makes me quicker, it makes me push myself harder.
“Instead of taking those fights out in the street, I take it out on the obstacle course where it counts. Where I get ranked. I was lucky enough to get myself in the world championship this year. To me, that is such a major achievement. Knowing that I will be competing for the world. It’s the craziest thing to think of when I think about this past year, how far I’ve come with my coping mechanisms. With my climbing, my fitness, nature and my health. Racing.
“My buddy said to me the other day, when I made the world championship and I qualified, he said, ‘Isn’t it crazy to think just ten months ago, you wanted to leave this world. And now you’re going to go compete for it.’ That really hit me. People are inspired by my story because they understand it. They get emotional and even I get emotional sharing it. It’s something that I lived through. The people that are inspired by it, that’s what matters to me. When he said that, it really put a wow factor in my head. Like, ‘Wow, you really did this, and you earned it, John. And it’s just the beginning.’”
It’s interesting that you found success and are building a career in overcoming obstacles. I see a lot of symbolism in that. Do you see that connection?
“Yeah, I do. All of the obstacles in my way, I overcame them. I believe in God and I think that he put these obstacles in my way to make me a stronger person. He made me into a warrior, someone who can protect his daughter.
“I once had someone come up to me who was a pastor, and it was a weird in that… I’m religious in some ways, I believe in God and I believe in heaven. I have a lot of beliefs. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, but this guy was really into it. He came up to me, I had never met him before. I was wearing a long t-shirt and obviously I have tattoos. And he came up to me and I think he noticed the roman numerals on my wrist—twenty-three. He asked me what my name was and I told him John. He said something about the roman numerals twenty-three and he looked it up and he said, and this is one of the craziest things that has ever happened. He said, ‘Do you have any other tattoos?’ He went to a phrase in The Bible and said that I was put on Earth as a guardian angel. So he asked me if I had any other tattoos, and I have four angel tattoos. There has always been something about angels. My mother used to always tell me before I went to sleep, ‘dream of angels.’ And that’s something that I have tattooed on me. It’s something that I take from her, and it’s something I say to my daughter before she goes to sleep.
“Those obstacles and things I’ve overcome, and why I’m on this Earth is to help myself, but really help other people. I’m really here to help other people and save people’s lives. In any way I can. Whether it’s sharing my story, even if it’s one life I touch, that is something that God wanted me to do—that I want to do. I think he put that in my heart, to always care about other people. Maybe sometimes I care about other people more than myself. Maybe that’s something that got me in trouble in my past. It’s just part of my character. It’s what I’m here to do, and what I will continue to do for years to come.
“We’re even starting a foundation, me and my two friends. For mental illness and addiction awareness, to help people overcome anything. Maybe climbing mountains is for them, come join us on expeditions. Just amazing things.
“The one-eighty I did is just unreal, it really is when you look back on it. The support I’ve been getting from friends and my friends’ families that I look at like my own family members. And my mother is so proud of me, because I put her through a lot of pain, too. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“That’s where I stand now. Life is beautiful. I could never imagine myself back in that world. I’ll fight every day to never go back to it. That’s not the real me, I’m happy with the real me, and I found the real me.”
What advice would you offer to anyone else who’s reading this who can relate to where you’ve been, or where you are?
“I would have to say to anyone out there going through addiction, or with family members going through addiction or mental illness. If you’ve been through the same things that I have in the past, or you’re going through them, you’re not alone. Life is hard. Not everyone has a perfect life. The world is tough. If you believe in a higher power—it could be anything—but God is challenging you. So fight back and see what he has to offer at the end of it all.
“You can never give up on what you want to do with your life, no matter how hard it is. It can’t be harder than what you’ve been through, or what you’re going through. It just can’t. You’ve got to go back to school for something you love. You’ve got to get outside. If you’ve got to run or play sports, just go do that.
“I make it sound easy, but it’s a battle. Especially if you’re going through alcoholism or drug addiction. You’ve got to get rid of the bad people and the bad influences in your life and focus on yourself because if you don’t focus on yourself first, it’s not going to be good. Tell those other people, just delete their phone numbers, or don’t even have a phone. Just get the help you need, find your passion, find what you want to do with your life. And if you believe in God, find out what God wants you to be in this world, and what you can contribute to the world. It’s so beautiful and it’s just something that anyone, if they set their mind to it, they can achieve it.
“When you’re down there in depression, because I’ve been there, I’ve been through the ringer. When you’re in that zone, you really don’t think you could do anything. You think you’re worthless. You just want to die. You are your own worst critic. You just have to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m going to try to fight.’ You’ve just got to fight back because it’s you versus whatever illness you’re going through, whatever struggles you’re going through. You’ve got to be the better and bigger person and overcome it.
“There are so many people out there who can help. There are groups that offer support. I can help. Contact me personally. There are so many ways that you can change your life around. That’s my goal to help others do that and realize that. I just know that if I can do it, anyone can. I’ve been around plenty of people who have gone through similar struggles and they’ve overcome it, and these guys are doing big things with their lives and they’re helping others along the way.
“That’s what it’s all about. That’s what life is all about. At least for me, and people like you and people that I know, the world’s about caring for other people. The world revolves around money, but you need to be in the world living life in order to make money. That’s one thing I get caught up in. A big career and whatnot. Obviously you want to chase a big career and get that and make a lot of money. It’s your choice on what you want to do with your life. If you need fancy cars or huge houses, you just need to figure out what you want to do with your life, and not let others affect that.
Do you have a favorite quote, or a mantra, or song lyric that resonates with you that you’d like to share?
“I don’t have a mantra, and this is not original, but I’ve got to go back to, ‘Everything happens for a reason.’”
What does that mean to you?
“I believe that everything in my past has happened for a reason and has led me to where I am today. It was hard for me to grasp that because maybe it’s a coping mechanism for when something goes wrong. Everything happens for a reason. It’s so easy to say that. But does everything happen for a reason? Does God have a plan for everybody? Does whoever is controlling this world, do they have a plan for everybody?
“What would have happened if I didn’t, if me and my ex-fiancée stayed together, if we stuck it out. Would I have ever found my wake up call? That happening, I look at it as it happened for a reason. It was meant to me. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it’s something that held me back from finding my true self. Anytime you get a bump in the road, that happened for a reason. Now that I look back on it, I really believe that.”
Is it possible that those experiences may have been your training? You’re training for an obstacle course, going through some rigorous obstacles that are challenging, where you probably feel like you’re pushing yourself beyond your limits, and maybe confronting those places in your mind where you feel like you can’t do it. You feel like you’re ready to give up and throw in the towel, and that you’re not good enough. You face all of those negative messages. It would seem like the adversities in our lives shape us in the same way and prepare us for what’s next and for what our purpose is.
“Yes, exactly. I agree with that, totally. You’re right, with the training. Even when I’m out there on the course, it’s a battle, too. Even when I’m out there, it’s something where I don’t feel that I’m just a good runner, because I’m not. I’m not a great runner. I feel that when I’m out there, the things in the past and the things I tell myself in my mind make me not stop running. Make me not give up. Make me climb that rope. Make me carry that eighty-pound thing without putting it down.
“It’s a game I play in my head. I think that’s what appeals this sport to me so much. Why I’m good at it. It’s because I have that mindset. There may be guys that never smoked a cigarette in their lives. Never went through any of this. The most fit you’ve ever seen who have been doing this for years. But they don’t have that mindset where it’s. Okay, if I’ve been through everything I’ve been through in the past and get through that pain, I can get through the pain of my legs hurting or whatever is hurting. Whatever is going on at that last mile, or through the highest part of the course.
“I really turn into a different person when I’m out there. I have my fun, but I’m out there to compete. When I’m out there, the past comes with me. It’s awesome. It makes me a better athlete and a stronger person.
“Even my daughter, I remember my first race of the year. It was about sixteen miles long on a ski mountain with about forty obstacles. I signed up for it. I had just gotten clean. I was taking it serious, going to really get into it. I think about that last mile, it was mile sixteen. My body was completely exhausted. I was swaying back and forth. I thought I was going to pass out. It was brutal. We had to climb up the mountain one more time. I just kept saying to myself, ‘Lyla. Lyla. Lyla.’ My daughter’s name, over and over. I’m going to do this for her.
“I’m looking around at the people around me and it’s like the walking dead. No one can move, they can’t climb up this mountain. People are quitting. Whatever I have to use to get through that mentally—because it’s mental at that point—it’s physical because if your body breaks, you can’t get up the mountain. But I can push myself through that pain thinking of my daughter. Thinking about the past. Just thinking eff you to the past. Just bring it! That’s the way I think when I’m on the courses. That couldn’t kill me. That couldn’t beat me. This course isn’t going to beat me. It’s only going to make me stronger for years to come.
“I’m excited for my future with racing. I want to make my sponsors happy. It’s my main goal to be one of the best in the world at what I do and share my story on how I got to be one of the best in the world along the way. It’s my past and my mental state. Without that past, I would just be an average racer. I probably would have given up a lot. That really drives me. The competitiveness. That’s what drove me during baseball, football and basketball—any of the athletic things I do. Not everything is a competition, but when rankings are on the line, you put all that training into it. Sweat, blood and tears. The heat. That’s when you showcase it.
“It’s a wonderful journey and it’s just beginning. I have a lot to look forward to. I have three races left. I have the world championship. Just competing in it is an honor. It’s not just the race. It really comes down to when I cross that finish line, where I’ve come in my life this past year. When they put a world championship medal on my neck, it’s going to be a surreal moment. I’ll be in tears. Tears of joy, just happy. Wow, you did this.
“People have been helpful, but you can’t just count on other people. This is you. It’s the choices you make. You’ve gotta fight. I’ve been fighting and it’s paying off. I couldn’t ask for more.”
How has it felt to talk about these experiences with me today?
“It’s been wonderful. It really has. You’re a great guy. I can read you. Sharing my story is something that is hard to do, but it also helps me. Sharing it and knowing that it can get out there and touch some people or help someone, maybe even start racing. I’m not in this to get famous. I’m not in this to be big or anything like that. I’m just a normal guy. If anyone wants to contact me personally, they can email me. They can call me. That’s fine.
“I’m just a regular person that wants to pass the message on that needs to be done. Talking with you today was awesome. It was a great way to share the message and help other people. I know that you’re out there to help other people too. That’s why I wanted to do this interview with you. It really is great. So I hope the message gets across and others out there are reached and touched by it and get out there and fight.”
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