Chris Hoppe The Phoenix Progressive CrossFit

Chris Hoppe can tell you about all the times his recovery didn’t work — and why.

“I struggled with alcohol and drugs my entire life, from early on in middle school, high school, all the way through,” he recalls. “I never used drugs and alcohol normally, if that makes sense. It was never like, ‘Oh, I’ll have a couple of beers with the guys.’ I was always a blackout drinker — and then drugs allowed me to drink longer before blacking out, so that provided me a little buffer there before getting in trouble.

“Then it progressed on; I went to college and got worse and worse. I ended up going to jail and hospitals more and more frequently.”

A native of Dallas, Texas, Hoppe moved to Alamosa to play college football in 2002 and then, he says, “I drank my way out of college” in one semester.

“I went into a treatment facility for 30 days and it wasn’t enough,” he said. “I was going to be turned right back out to where I was from — and I had nothing new. Nothing had changed besides me, and I had nowhere else to go. So I went to another treatment facility and the same thing ended up happening.

“I stayed for four months at an all-male rehab in Oklahoma, and when I left I still relapsed because I went back into the same type of lifestyle.”

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It’s a universal problem for addicts.

“We spend so much time with our drug of choice, whatever it may be, that when you lose that you need something to fill the void until you start to get back on your feet,” Hoppe explains.

A dedication to fitness and friendship is what filled that void for Hoppe — and now he’s devoted himself to helping others build stable, sober lives on those same foundations.

Hoppe, 34, is manager at The Phoenix Colorado Springs. With branches around the nation, the Denver-based nonprofit’s mission is to offer “a free sober active community to individuals who have suffered from a substance use disorder and to those who choose a sober life.”

The Phoenix uses a peer support model to help members heal and rebuild their lives, and aims to eliminate stigma around recovery.

Hoppe and his mother co-owned Progressive Fitness CrossFit from 2009 until February, when it was purchased by The Phoenix.

This week he talked to the Business Journal about merging with The Phoenix, leading by example, and how working out can be the key to long-term recovery.

How does The Phoenix work?

They support people in recovery from substance use disorder, or people that just want a sober lifestyle. And they provide free programming — biking, hiking, climbing, yoga, CrossFit, obstacle course races, anything you can think of — as a positive outlet for people that are looking for a different type of lifestyle. The only requirement is 48 hours clean and sober. That’s it. Everything is 100 percent free. It’s a peer-to-peer model, so once they become a member the goal is for them to be able to give back, whether that’s through donation or volunteering their time and being able to show that they can progress through the process and get back on their feet and create this community around them. It’s a pretty cool self-sustaining model.

Why is it important to have activities and connections on the other side of substance use problems?

One of the main things you miss when you’re coming out of substance use problems is the community, is the support around you. So our first and foremost focus is the community here. You’re here, and we’re here to hang out with you, because we need that support group.

Does it give them something else to throw themselves into?

It gives them a hobby right off the bat, something that they can sink their teeth into. … For a lot of people it can be fitness; it can be anything where you get little wins. ‘I climbed that wall for the first time’ or ‘I lifted that weight for the first time.’ Those little wins really help the confidence and the self-esteem and at the same time you’re building friends that will last for a lifetime — the trial through fire.

How important is it that the volunteers have been through something similar?

Vital. Because you can look somebody in the eye and be empathetic. A lot of people can be sympathetic but being empathetic is like, ‘Hey, I know exactly where you’re at. I’ve been there. I’ve lost my job because of this. I’ve been to prison, I’ve done time. I’ve worked through these steps — here’s what it’s going to take.’ And it’s an instant rapport. You build that trust with somebody right off the bat and you know that they’re talking your language.

Talk about how working out and building community came together for you.

When I moved back to Colorado after rehab I got right into working out. Immediately. That was the thing, and I worked out all the time, constantly. It was way too much — I was obsessed with it — but it kept me sober. That and going to [Alcoholics Anonymous] were the initial things that helped me. Between going to the meetings and working out, it was like, ‘OK, this is it. I’ve found a community of people in AA and I’ve found an outlet physically.’ And then I got my shit together and went back to be a personal trainer, fell in love with that aspect of it, wanted to teach people, and then I found CrossFit. And CrossFit was a community that worked out together, versus working out by yourself — and I was like ‘This is it.’ It was like the Holy Grail. And 10 years later I found The Phoenix, which is CrossFit-with-recovery, so it was like this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened. For me to be able to walk these guys through the steps and be like, ‘Hey, I know what it’s like to not have a hobby, I know what it’s like to just be floundering when you come out of treatment, or trying to quit drinking — I go to AA, I’ve been through all types of recovery. Here’s what works for me and here’s what I do on a daily basis to stay sober.’ I get to lead by example, and that’s probably the most powerful thing.

How do you know what’s working?

The way we gauge it is on a different level — it depends on where people are at. Some people come in and they can’t even do a single squat without sitting down. For them it’s like, ‘Man, you can squat now — total success.’ Or maybe they come in and they’re not sure about sobriety, but they can string together 48 hours to come to an event. Then all of a sudden they come to two events a week and it’s like, ‘OK, you’re starting to adopt a sober lifestyle now.’ It’s anything from being able to hit two events in a row because you’ve strung together four days of sobriety, to — ‘Man, you were able to complete a triathlon because you trained with our endurance team.’ A myriad of things — it depends on where everybody’s at. Our goal is to meet them where they’re at when they come in. There’s no barrier. There’s no ‘Oh I’ve got to be in shape,’ or ‘I’m too fit to do this.’ No, we have everything.

What were the mechanics of The Phoenix buying Progressive?

It was a few years in the process. Through recovery I met my coworker now, Todd. He started talking about The Phoenix, which I had no idea existed. I volunteered for them teaching CrossFit classes on Fridays for a couple of years and it got to the point where me and my mom [realized] that taking our business to the next level would take a large investment, and splitting locations, and that’s not what we wanted to do. … We wanted to be more involved with the recovery community and getting people into fitness because it helped us so much, so we approached The Phoenix. … The rest is history. I do the exact same thing I did before, but now I have an employer.

What’s your leadership philosophy?

Lead by example. I have to walk the walk. For me, my motto’s always been deeds not words. I can talk to people all day — people gave me great advice when I was trying to get sober. Great advice. For years. And I was like: ‘That’s great advice.’ But I wasn’t ready, until I saw somebody walking through it and I could follow their footsteps, not their words. And that for me has been tried and true through everything that we’ve done — if I’m not in here leading by example, they can’t see what to do. And if my coaches and our employees at The Phoenix aren’t leading by example, what are we doing? We are the front line. We are the people they’re going to see and we are the people who can grab their hand and pull them out of the shit. That’s what we want to be.

What else should people know about you?

That I still struggle. That I’m no different than when I walked in; I’ve just got more tools and more support. That’s it. I think people that are seen in a leadership position, people see them on a pedestal — they see what they see on Instagram, they see the highlight reel. You know, we all have bad days. It’s just when I have bad days, I now have a group of people to take that bad day to, versus trying to deal with it on my own. And most people don’t put that out there — that it’s not easier, I’ve just got better tools.