Documentary Follows CrossFit Affiliate Owner’s Quest to Help Recovering Addicts

December 8, 2022 by
Photo Credit: Small Town Strong (@ smalltownstrongdoc)
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Army veteran and affiliate owner Dale King has spent nearly two decades trying to help residents of Portsmouth, OH, battle addiction with fitness. Now his efforts will be the focus of an upcoming documentary, Small Town Strong

The big picture: Small Town Strong centers on PSKC CrossFit, King’s home base that has helped numerous residents of Portsmouth take a new approach to their recovery. The documentary tells King’s story, but it also follows one specific woman as she goes through the process and pursues a better life. 

  • Portsmouth, a town of just over 20,000 people, is considered to be the “epicenter” of the current opioid epidemic. One reason for this is Dr. Paul Volkman, who was sentenced to four life sentences in prison for his conviction in the drug overdose deaths of four patients.
  • According to CBS News, federal prosecutors said in 2012 that Volkman made weekly trips from Chicago to three locations in Portsmouth and that he “prescribed and dispensed millions of dosages of various drugs including diazepam, hydrocodone, oxycodone, alprazolam, and carisoprodol.”

The doctor who invented the pill mill model that actually historically started here in Portsmouth back in the 90s,” King said. “So we have had the longest experience kind of dealing with being an addicted population. And we’ve ridden the wave from opiate [to] prescription pill, prescription pain pills to heroin to currently the third wave is fentanyl.”

  • “I mean, one of the things that we do, we show the process that Dale’s describing,” said co-director Chase Millsap. “But the stakes here have never been higher. We start talking about fentanyl on the market and the chance of relapse turning into death is incredibly high.”
  • “And these people deal with this every single day. One relapse could mean the end of it. So you know, sobriety and abstinence is the only way to go through this. And so it’s that level of risk and stakes, but then at the end of the day, by working out together, holding each other accountable, you can decrease that.”

An important topic: As King explained, the opioid epidemic should generate more discussions than it does. He noted that there are more than 107,000 people dying each year from these overdoses, and he referred to fentanyl as a weapon of mass destruction. To King’s point, the CDC noted in September 2022 that fentanyl was responsible for at least 70% of all drug deaths. 

  • “One of the things we wanted to do with the documentary is really pull back the curtain a little bit, get into people’s lives, get into their addiction stories, get the backstory,” Millsap said. “And I think you’ll find that there’s a lot of commonalities there.” 
  • “I think you get a sense of just like, somebody did opioids once and is hooked. You get a better understanding of this as a disease. So then it becomes now we’re talking about stigma, right?” 
  • “I think the real secret sauce here when it comes to CrossFit – and we explore this – we walk through the science behind CrossFit, what it does to the brain, how the brain can heal.”

King’s affiliate has a partnership with a nonprofit addiction treatment facility, the Counseling Center. He provides an alternate take on physical therapy, which supports ongoing emotional and mental therapy, and he helps make a lasting impact on those in recovery.

  • The partnership began in 2018. King built out a gym at the Counseling Center so that PSKC could start holding CrossFit classes. Now the affiliate holds roughly 25 each week while helping those in recovery build a sense of camaraderie through their suffering.
  • “We figured it would kind of work but the outcomes have been so remarkable from it,” King said. “Just from the standpoint that like, you’re with a group of guys, and they will hold you accountable.” 
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Continued support: Helping people battle addiction with CrossFit is only part of the story. Small Town Strong also follows the journey that occurs after these individuals leave recovery. As Millsap noted, just because someone is out of recovery, it doesn’t mean that they have a job, a bank account, or a place to live.

  • PSKC and the Counseling Center continue to work with these individuals. There are partnerships with local businesses that help them transition out of recovery and back into the workforce. The process includes landing part-time jobs, a move to full-time, and then securing an apartment. 
  • “I’ll tie it back to the analogy of CrossFit,” King said. “Just like mechanics, consistency, then intensity, right? So show me the mechanics that you can show up on time to a job, show me that you have the mechanics of attending your counseling sessions, and show me you can do everything that you’re supposed to do.”
  • “Then once you show that, then do it consistently. And then once we’ve built consistency, then and only then we can add intensity. Intensity in the fact of increased hours, intensity in the fact of, ‘Okay, now we’re gonna get custody of our children back.’ Just the overall intensity of life.”

One example of this process is Andrew, a Marine veteran who is four years into the process. Andrew was one of the people who completed the first-ever classes at the Counseling Center. Now he is sober and he is a manager in training. 

  • “At the end of the day, this film is a comeback story,” Millsap said. “And it’s through the individual comebacks you get to see the entire town have a comeback. The town is actually rebuilding itself from manufacturing going away, getting hit by the opioid crisis, all of those things, the Rust Belt, Appalachia, all that.”
  • “You start to see buildings come back, the community come back, and it all comes down to those individual stories that collectively now bring the town back and can be replicated. That’s the message we want to do that this isn’t solely unique to Portsmouth. That there are other ways to do this in your own small town across America.”

The plan is for the documentary to see the light of day in 2023. It is in post-production, and there is still considerable work remaining for the production team that includes directors Chase and Spencer Millsap, as well as executive producers in King, Maile Gerken Millsap (The Big Bang Theory), Sharon Schindel, and David Harden.

For now, King will continue his work at PSKC CrossFit and the Counseling Center. He will keep helping those in recovery and those that are much further along in the process. King won’t lose motivation; he has seen the benefits both on a personal level and throughout Portsmouth. 

  • “It’s really my life’s work, man,” King said. “It’s the single most rewarding and fulfilling thing you could ever be a part of. Watching somebody that you played a small role in improving their life and watching them really just grow into an incredibly strong, beautiful entity that helps others.” 

“That’s the only way we’re going to get through this problem is by helping others, training the trainers, and just watching them make an impact on others.”

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