Todd Kowalski: From Popping Pills, Living in a Walmart Parking Lot to Owning a CrossFit Gym

February 22, 2021 by
Courtesy of Todd Kowalski
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It all started for Todd Kowalski in 2007: He fractured his arm pitching and was put on painkillers. Before he knew it, he was addicted to opiates. “Percocet, Vicodin, Oxycodone, Roxycodone. Whatever I could get my hands on,” said Kowalski, now 43. 

  • Over the course of the next decade, his opiate addiction slowly became a $200-plus a day lifestyle, leading Kowalski to burn through his 401k and all his other savings, and sever his relationship with his daughter. 

The details: From 2007 to 2017, Kowalski spent his days obsessed with finding a way to get his next high, so he could “momentarily forget about everything,” he explained.

  • He worked his ass off, taking on whatever construction job he could, to pay for his addiction. “I would make $3,000 in a few days and then blow it in a week,” he said. 
  • Somewhere along the way, he stumbled across CrossFit and quickly fell in love with it, but even his love for fitness wasn’t enough to kick his pill popping addiction. 
  • “I worked out five days a week, but you couldn’t really tell because I was still (taking) sometimes 50 Percocets a day….I had no nutrition because every dollar went to pills. My nutrition was ramen noodles,” he said. “Talk about messed up priorities. I would pay for my CrossFit membership and then get as many pills as I could with the rest (of my money).”
  • By 2017, Kowalski found himself without a CrossFit gym, homeless and couch surfing. But after six months of that, “I was out of friends to use for housing,” he said. That’s when he started sleeping in his car in Walmart parking lots and showering at Planet Fitness. “I was paying $10 a month at Planet Fitness to use the shower,” he said. 

The moment: One day in August 2017, Kowalski found himself painting a house under the hot summer sun. 

  • “I was cooking in the heat, and I was like, ‘Man, I’m really just painting this house to get high. Instead of paying money for a roof over my head, I’d rather just get high,’” he explained of the moment he decided it was time to make a change. 
  • Shortly after that, he stumbled across CrossFit MontCo in East Norriton, PA, and instantly connected with the community. “I decided I wanted to try (CrossFit) again, but this time I want to do it sober,” he said. “So I started spending three or four hours every day in the gym. I was safe there…The community there helped save my life,” he added.

Today: Kowalski has been sober for three-and-a-half years, and he and his wife Janet D’Iorio — a woman he met through CrossFit — are now the proud owners of CrossFit Palm Harbor in Florida.

  • When the couple purchased the affiliate in January, 2020, Kowalski’s plan was to partner with local rehabilitation facilities and doctors and begin offering training to anyone struggling with addiction. But then COVID-19 happened and his plan was placed on hold. That being said, once the pandemic ends, his intention is still to become the place to train for anyone wanting to get clean and sober. “I want to give them something to look forward to, to teach them how to workout without that poison in their system,” he said. 
  • More importantly, Kowalski has been working on mending his relationship with his now 18-year-old daughter. Two months ago, he had an “emotional” meet-up with her for the first time in two years, he explained. It’s a work-in-progress, but the two have been speaking daily. “If I get her back next to me, my life will be perfect,” he said. 
Courtesy of Todd Kowalski

Kowalski’s message: Kowalski is adamant that change must come from within. That being said, even though he had to put in the hard work, he couldn’t have done it without his both wife and his CrossFit community, he explained.

  • “Nobody is going to do it for you. You have to do it for yourself. And it’s hard work. There are a ton of days that will suck, but there are a lot of days that are really really good…Just, don’t give up,” Kowalski said.
  • His clients thank him all the time for his coaching, “but I also feel I need to thank them,” he said. “Every day, I get to see our members (and it) helps me stay sober.”

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