The following article was printed in The Mercury on October 18, 2015
CrossFit athletes Sam Calvanese, left, and Marissa Kullman, right, row on indoor machines at CrossFit Pottstown. The women use the athletic program to build their strength mentally and physically as recovering addicts.
By Michilea Patterson, The Mercury
POTTSTOWN >> At 22, Marissa Kullman was spending $100 a day on heroin, sometimes more. A year and a half ago, Sam Calvanese’s life consisted of unhealthy relationships and a lack of self-confidence because of her heroin addiction. After both made the decision to become sober, they used the support of a fitness community to help rebuild their lives.
Kullman, now 25, and Calvanese, 27, met in a support group meeting for addicts. Last March, a mutual friend suggested they try CrossFit to help with their recovery. With the support of one another, the two women decided to try it. The athletic program transformed them physically and mentally.
Crossfit athletes Sam Calvanese, left, and Marissa Kullman, right,do some strength training with a bar while working out at Pottstown CrossFit. The two women are part of the a recovery program for addicts.
About a year ago, CrossFit Pottstown started a fitness recovery program for individuals that made the decision to stop using and become sober. Rob Matthews, owner of CrossFit and the Pottstown Athletic Club, said he got the idea after reading an article about a gym that was used specifically for this purpose. Being aware of halfway houses in Pottstown, Matthews wanted to help change the lives of some of those people.
Addicts that were serious about their sobriety were invited to attend a free introductory CrossFit class. Matthews said CrossFit is all about community and helping one another which is what people need to succeed in life.
“Putting these individuals in a room with a community that is very supportive is everything when helping them recover,” he said.
The people in the recovery program are finding out that they can accomplish things they never thought possible before, Matthews said. He said CrossFit is a great tool to use during recovery because people see results immediately.
“Within a couple of weeks, they’re stronger and faster,” he said. “The self-esteem of the women (in the recovery program) is through the roof.”
But before Kullman and Calvanese started on a road to recovery and confidence, their lives were consumed by the desire of one thing: heroin.
When Kullman was 13 she was hit in the face with a paintball which would cause her extreme pain for years.
“It legally blinded me in my right eye which caused me to have crazy migraines,” she said.
So she started abusing the prescription pain reliever drug Percocet to manage the pain and later to keep her “up” for her fast-paced job as a waitress. Eventually it became too expensive to continue to use Percocet so she started snorting heroin.
“It was just a matter of money for me honestly but it started out with pain (management) then it was like total addiction,” Kullman said.
Because of her substance abuse, Kullman wasn’t the person she dreamed of being when she was younger. She never pursued her goal of teaching. Her life also included several unhealthy relationships and arguments with her family. She stole to pay for her addiction and was in debt.
“I was just doing things that I wouldn’t normally have done if I was sober,” she said.
Kullman’s moment of revelation came with a surprising situation. At age 22, when Kullman wanted to switch from snorting heroin to injecting it, both her boyfriend at the time and even drug dealer told her she needed to get help.
“That was like the people that were selling me stuff were telling me I have a problem so I was pretty embarrassed,” she said.
With the help of a sponsor, the 12-step program and God, Kullman started changing her life around. She said her recovery was a self-discovery process. It changed her perspective on everything and how she viewed herself.
“I didn’t know anything that I really genuinely liked about myself. I only knew what my boyfriends liked,” Kullman said.
She used to blame Pottstown for her heroin addiction but once she was sober Kullman started noticing all the healthy outlets available in the area like CrossFit and its paddling team, the Pottstown Dragon Warriors.
Both Kullman and Calvanese joined the paddling team and started working out at CrossFit together. Calvanese said she hadn’t been a part of a team since high school and that the friendships formed there really helped her recovery process.
“When I started using drugs, I got away from people. That stuff wasn’t important to me. The only thing that was important to me was drugs and toxic relationships,” she said.
Now Calvanese says it’s amazing to be a part of team and activity that she’s passionate about. Although there are days when she doesn’t feel like exercising, with the help of a community Calvanese pushes herself to do so anyway. This has helped build her confidence tremendously.
“For me, CrossFit has benefited me more mentally than physically,” she said.
Even Calvanese’s mother, Charlene Santillo, has noticed the difference in her daughter. Santillo herself became sober at age 27 after using a variety of drugs including methamphetamine and cocaine. She said it’s amazing to watch her daughter build up her self-esteem through CrossFit and see the support she has there.
“It’s been amazing what Rob (Matthews) has done for them … They help each other out and they’re there for each other,” Santillo said.
Calvanese appreciates that support too and said Matthews understands the financial situation of recovering addicts. Most of them are in debt because they spent all their money on drugs, she said.
Matthews allows people in the recovery program to join CrossFit for free until they get back on their feet. Instead of paying him with money, they will do so through chores and by volunteering at events.
“Our motivation is to get people fit,” he said adding that he doesn’t want money to be an excuse people make for not getting healthy.
In addition to working out at CrossFit, several women in the recovery program are part of the paddling team. Half of the team is made up of recovering addicts, Matthews said. He said the sport helps them rebuild their identity as healthy individuals.
“The individuals that are in recovery have spent years damaging their bodies,” he said adding that CrossFit and paddling helps them get to a place of physical and mental wellness.
The women will compete in the Philadelphia International Dragon Boat Festival on Nov. 7. They have been working with Ken Wong, Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association president, on their technique.
“My own personal observation is that these ladies are in great, physical condition. Now it’s a matter of them developing the proper paddling technique,” Wong said.
He said they all have a can-do attitude and there’s nothing they can’t achieve with time.