Changing Course: Carleen Matthews’ Wild Ride

They slowly started to trickle in that fateful night in mid-May, hesitant, anxious and unsure. There was more than a dozen, perhaps as many as 20 people at CrossFit St. Helens that Friday night. United by things they’d rather forget, each person is outfitted in brand-new Nike clothing, enough to make the average CrossFitter swoon.

They also get their blood pressure and weight checked and are told the importance of biofeedback and logging their thoughts. In CrossFit St. Helens owner Carleen Matthews’ mind, if you look good, you feel good and want to come back. And it’s paramount for this group of recovering addicts, who are able to come because of a local grant secured from a mental health agency and some generous sponsorship by Nike, to get into a routine.

Matthews is just a few weeks away from competing as an individual in the prestigious CrossFit Games for the third time. But here is where she feels her calling, where impact will be made far beyond her competition years. The program requirements are simple: the Friday night classes are free to anyone with 48 hours of being clean and sober.

Now in its second 10-week installment, the recovery program is quickly expanding to classes during the week with several local treatment centers taking part. The athletes aren’t perfect and they don’t have to be.

“We recently just lost a woman but the cool thing is, if she does go back out [and relapse] you can still come back,” Matthews said. “All you need is those 48 hours to get back on track. It’s like life, you can mess up and still have a chance.”

Matthews knows all about second chances.

As someone who struggled with an eating disorder and substance abuse problems, the 33-year-old wants to use her platform as an elite athlete to do something about it. And she wants to do it now. That means juggling brutal and time-consuming Games training with being a box owner (along with her husband, Keith) and the recovery program.

“There’s days when I’m like I don’t want to be an affiliate owner, but that is my long term,” said Matthews who, by her own estimations will only compete for another two years or so before trying to start a family.

“I want to be able to have a gym. I want to be able to work with people in recovery and reach as many people as we can through that. It’s becoming so much more of my passion, not only coaching here and changing lives through the gym, but also impacting the community, the recovery community out here has been huge, and the support we have for it is unbelievable. I have become more aware of how important it is and how much we need it.”

There wasn’t one scary moment or intervention that pushed Matthews off her bad path.

It was a Monday morning, October 25, 2010 and the party-girl was headed to her weekly therapy session for her eating disorder. Naturally, Matthews was hung over.

She had drank all day Saturday, said something wrong to a friend’s boyfriend, and then drank all day Sunday because she felt bad about what she had done. The binge-drinking cycle, which started in high school, was still pretty typical for Matthews’ weekends in her mid-20s.

It was a particularly bad hangover, bad enough for Matthews to admit that she needed to not drink for a few days.

“I thought it would be max, 30 days,” Matthews said. “For the first year it was like, ‘I’m not going to drink today. I’m just not going to drink today.’”

She started making a book about discovering herself and a page of it was dedicated to her sobriety. Every week Matthews would go to see her nutrition counselor and she’d ask, ‘How many days had it been since she had a drink?’  Seven, Matthews would answer. And she’d get seven stickers to put on that page on her book. 

Matthews pauses. She hasn’t talked about that sticker book in a while. She still has it after all this time, brimming with stickers and the reminder of what a small daily goal can add up to. The book was her accountability, her version of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is what got Matthews through the tough days and the first four months of her sobriety, when the new CrossFitter didn’t dare tell anyone that she didn’t —that she couldn’t — drink.

“I’m fine now with being able to say that. But for the first four or five months, I didn’t do anything. I went to CrossFit and went home,” Matthews said. “Because I didn’t know what to do outside of going out and partying.”

So Matthews, who started at CrossFit X-Factor in December of 2010, would go and do small semi-private group sessions to stay active and out of trouble. The former collegiate softball player would eye the “real” classes with awe.

When the 2011 CrossFit Open came around, Matthews couldn’t believe it: there was women effortlessly doing pull-ups and throwing around weight. One of the gym’s coaches told her, she was welcome to come to the group WODs any day she wanted. She could come five days a week if she wanted. Matthews hasn’t stopped since.

“When I walked into X-Factor, I just felt like I could be who I was,” she said. “I didn’t have to put on that [party girl] mask anymore. No one really cared, they just cared that I came in and showed up and worked hard. That was why I kept going and why I stuck with it. I didn’t have to talk about my past, about who I was. I didn’t have to worry about any of that.”

Conquering nutrition has been tougher.

Matthews, who is sponsored by Mission 6 Nutrition, admits she still falls victim to body-image issues and acknowledges that it’s a lifelong balancing act.

“It’s always an issue because I’d say on a regular basis, body image issues are triggered for me. And I don’t have the option to just not eat. I have to make a conscious choice every single day to fuel my body. Whereas the drinking, I just don’t concern myself with it,” she said.

“I think social media and the world we live in, [body image is] in our faces all the time. That bar has been harder. Because body image will always come up, it makes the drinking just feel so much more empowering because I can say no.”

And she can help others as well.

Matthews will be in the spotlight next month as she competes for “The Fittest on Earth,” title in Madison, Wisc. She knows others will be watching from across the country and the world and hopes that she can inspire others going through similar struggles.

Perhaps she can be that sticker of accountability, the one that she clung to so tightly and has created with St. Helens’ recovery classes.

“When I think about where I’ve been and where I am now, it’s crazy to me. But I also feel like I always knew I was capable of great things and this is where I need to be and supposed to be because of my journey, because of what I’ve been through,” she said. “It’s given me that platform to share my story or work with somebody. This is my path. If I hadn’t gone through everything I went through, I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today.”




All pictures courtesy of Carleen Matthews.