By : Megan Nicolai

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Josh Hamlin has seen two of his dreams derailed by drinking and drug abuse.

A talented football player, the Huntington Beach resident said he had to drop out of college and end his career in the sport due to his addictions. A surfer from a young age as well, he traveled to some of the world’s best spots for competitions. But the competitive surfing stopped and he ended up homeless.

Hamlin followed a sober friend to Colorado, trying a few times to get and stay sober, but he repeatedly relapsed.

Finally, on the advice of another friend, in 2008 he met up for a hike with a Colorado-based group through a gym called Phoenix Multisport. The nonprofit organization offers free gym time and exercise classes such as kickboxing, CrossFit and yoga to people with at least 48 hours of sobriety. Members also meet up for hiking, biking, rock climbing, races and fitness competitions.

Phoenix Multisport has offered activities in Orange County since 2014, and in September opened a gym in Newport Beach.

Hamlin, 41 and now sober for more than seven years, gives surfing and paddleboard lessons every Sunday through Phoenix’s Orange County group. Over the years, Hamlin said, Phoenix has connected him to some of his best friends and his wife, with whom he has two young daughters.

“I never thought I’d be back in the water like this,” he said. “I owe everything to this group. … I have a life that I never imagined.”

About 21.5 million people in the U.S. 12 or older had a substance use disorder in 2014, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Seventeen million of those had an alcohol use disorder, 7.1 million had a drug use disorder and 2.6 million had both.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates alcohol and drug abuse costs the country $417 billion annually in health care, crime and lost work productivity.

The institute’s guide on addiction treatment advises former users to find constructive and rewarding activities to replace drug-using actions, and suggests participation in peer-support programs after treatment.

Phoenix Multisport seeks to fill both those roles.

The group was new in Colorado when Hamlin joined, but now operates two other chapters – in Boston, along with Orange County’s.

Scott Strode, executive director and founder of Phoenix, said that when people walk into the brightly lit gym on the border with Costa Mesa, the first question is always, “Is this really free?” But after the initial shock, they’re struck by the fact they’re surrounded by people in recovery.

Exercise may be the thing to draw them in, but sweating together builds strong bonds that can erase a lot of the shame someone in recovery might feel, Strode said. There aren’t a lot of free options to meet other sober people short of 12-step programs, and a social network is important to set up, he said.

“What people get (at Phoenix) is a sense of community,” said Strode, who was recognized for his work by the White House as a 2014 Advocate for Action, and in 2012 was named a CNN Hero. “We all want to be accepted for who we are.”

About 500 people have attended events with the Orange County chapter so far, Strode said. Group members have cheered each other in a Tough Mudder running event and attended an overdose awareness vigil in Huntington Beach. Most recently, a few members went to a Costa Mesa CrossFit gym in a benefit for Barbells for Boobs, a group that raises money for breast cancer.

Along with being free, Phoenix Multisport’s classes are open to all fitness levels, to remove barriers for people recovering, Strode said.

Kristen DeVinny, who lives in Huntington Beach, saw the Phoenix group working out in a gym in Costa Mesa and started volunteering as a CrossFit instructor. DeVinny doesn’t have a substance abuse problem, but her brother does. Knowing how she feels after a workout, she said, she can only imagine how healing that must be for someone just getting sober.

“We’re all trying to get strong and do something active together,” she said. “When I walk into Phoenix I feel like I can let my guard down, be 100 percent myself, and be accepted and loved. Just saying that Phoenix changed my life doesn’t quite fully capture the profound effect it had on me.”

Steven Ey, medical director of the Hoag Addiction Treatment Center, said that while therapy is the primary treatment focus for someone in recovery, exercise is a great supplement. A newly sober person can feel a drive to start developing healthier habits, and the release of endorphins is a good bonus, he said.

“The person says, ‘I’m going to start taking care of myself in multiple ways, physically and emotionally,’” Ey said. “Exercise would be a great way to spend time to replace when they’d be using or under the influence.”

Mitra Ahadpour, medical officer with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said exercise can ease myriad problems that someone in recovery can run into, like pain and stress, and help build coping mechanisms.

“By doing a physical activity, they increase their energy level, they look fit, they feel healthy,” Ahadpour said. It can also promote sleep if they’re experiencing insomnia, and combat anxiety or boredom, which can trigger relapse, she said.

Keri Fowler of Costa Mesa was one of the first people to become a regular with the Orange County chapter. She was two years sober when she started with the group, but hit a rough patch with her recovery.

A friend told her to try Phoenix. Fowler walked in the door barely able to do a squat. Now she’s a familiar face at the new gym.

“It’s been a great outlet for me,” she said.

Fowler said she started using drugs when she was 15. She’s been homeless, and has gone to jail. Getting sober and starting life over was a shock.

“You don’t know how to live on life’s terms,” she said. “When you first get sober, a schedule or routine is really important.”

Phoenix funds programs through donations and grants, Strode said. The Orange County location is working to meet a $50,000 matching grant by the end of the year.

Strode said that after he got sober from alcohol and drugs more than 18 years ago, he was healthier but felt a little lost in himself.

“I had sort of lost my identity,” Strode said. “It felt like a lot of who I was was wrapped up in my addiction.”

Then he found himself in a boxing gym. Then climbing up the side of a mountain. Then competing in a triathlon.

“Every time I crossed a finish line or stood on a mountain, it was healing me,” Strode said.

While Orange County has many treatment centers, there aren’t many options for those at risk for relapsing, said Newport Beach resident Larry Buckelew, who, with his wife, Liz, donated funds to help bring Phoenix to Orange County. He said he and other investors were working with Strode to develop a Phoenix chapter locally for about four years.

“Orange County desperately needs this kind of program,” Buckelew said.

After the gym in Newport Beach becomes established, Strode said, he hopes to develop chapters in San Diego and Los Angeles. There may even be a chance for setting up a program to work specifically with veterans with addictions, he said. But for now, Orange County is enough.

“This is a good spot to dive in,” Strode said.

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