Just turn on your television and it’s easy to see professional athletes accomplishing amazing feats that are shared worldwide. What the general public often doesn’t see, however, is the toll that this high-level athletic performance takes on the body, as well as the immense stress and pressure that comes with a professional sports career. All too often, athletes turn to substance use as a way to cope with performance anxiety, manage pain, and deal with stress. This can easily spiral into addiction and ultimately affect their health and career.
In honor of National Recovery Month, we’re showcasing stories of professional athletes who have chosen sobriety and recovery instead, providing an inspiring model for all of us who seek to lead sober lifestyles.
For many athletes, substance use begins while they are still on the field. Former Detroit Lions football player Calvin Johnson chose to retire rather than overuse the opioid painkillers that other players relied upon to continue playing. “You can’t take…pain medicine every day, you know. You gotta give that stuff a rest,” he told ESPN.
Other athletes have been able to prioritize their recovery while still competing in their chosen sport. Ironman racer John Joseph struggled with addiction and incarceration before achieving sobriety in 1990. He maintains his sober lifestyle—even while playing in a band and competing—by focusing on a plant-based diet and a strict workout routine. He told Outside Magazine the idea of a jet setting party-hopping lifestyle is “a fantasy life.”
Ultrarunner Catra Corbett sold drugs before spending a single night in jail that changed her life. Looking for some direction after her arrest, Corbett entered a 10k run. Since then, she has maintained her sobriety, competed in more than 200 ultrarunning competitions and is considered a leader in the sport. Corbett told the Colorado Sun that running “gave me a purpose [and] kept me focused.”
Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte had several high-profile bans from competition due to reckless behavior, enough to prompt him to seek treatment for alcohol use and to make the decision to stay sober. “I have bigger and better things going on,” he told USA Today, including a renewed focus on his swimming, his wife, and his young daughter.
For retired athletes, substance use can often prompt soul searching, including admitting that they need help.
Hockey player Jim Thomson became widely known for his “tough guy” persona on the ice, racking up more than 400 minutes in the penalty box for on-ice confrontations. But when his hockey career ended, Thomson found himself lost and increasingly drawn to substance use, even to the point of contemplating suicide.
After getting sober more than a decade ago, Thomson now dedicates his career to mentoring younger players and promoting conversations about addiction. “I really believe my impact on a lot of people by sharing my story helps them in their recovery because they looked at me and I saved my life; and if they’re into that lifestyle, they need to save their own life,” he told CaliSportsNews.
Other athletes have also chosen to give back through mentorship and dialogue. Baseball player Darryl Strawberry struggled with addiction throughout his career, including three suspensions for cocaine use, and a 22-month prison sentence in 2002. Strawberry became sober in 2003 and now helps others as a minister and treatment advocate. He told the Dr. Oz program, “You know, I thought it was pretty cool. That was just the addiction, the drive.”
Increasingly, professional sports teams are recognizing the toll that substance use and addiction can take on their athletes. WNBA players for teams like the Dallas Wings are promoting open discussions about their struggles with addiction and personal trauma, helping destigmatize the conversation in the league. And the NFL is actively investigating reports of excessive opioid use among retired players struggling with injuries, although players still say the league has been too slow to recognize the crisis.
Even if you’re not competing on a professional level, injuries, stress and strain can trigger substance use and addiction. Keep a close eye on yourself and a loved one if you experience a combination of the following signs and symptoms, especially when managing an injury or medical event with opioid-based medication:
- Irritability or confusion
- Taking painkiller medications beyond the limits of a prescription
- Hoarding of painkiller medications
- Chronic use of alcohol or drugs to manage emotions or stress
- “Shopping” for doctors willing to write prescriptions
- Isolation from family, friends, and co-workers
If you feel that you or a loved one are at risk for addiction, please contact an addiction treatment professional for an assessment.
Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Substance Abuse, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987.