Nobody understands pain like a competitive athlete. High-intensity movements break down form, and stress reveals imperfection that can lead to injury. Yet, elite competitors find a way to cope with pain, overcome obstacles, and continue raising their sights to higher goals. Each day, they recommit themselves to the sport they love. The path of recovery is similar: struggle, perseverance, daily commitment.
Both competitive sports and recovery are as diverse and challenging as those who take the path. When athletes and recovery overlap, great things are possible. These five athletes compete in different fields but have one thing in common: they’re all in long term recovery.
Yassine Diboun is a world-renowned ultramarathoner in long-term recovery. He’s been running and been a part of the recovery community for well over a decade.
After 15 years of sobriety, he said, “I often joke that addicts are built for sport. We are so used to dealing with discomfort. When I was using, I was always the last one up, the one saying, ‘Let’s keep the party going!’ I bring that same mindset to my running. When it hurts, I know I can keep going.”
“Because of my recovery, I have an edge in endurance events. I’ve been through the wringer, to hell and back.”
Diboun’s physical achievements are numerous. He routinely places near the top in some of the most difficult American and international ultra-marathons, including a 3rd-place finish in the 2016 HURT 100-mile race with a finishing time of 22:39:00 and Top Ten finish in the 2013 Western States 100 with a time of 18:44:02. In 2015, Diboun was one of five American runners who represented the USA at the IAU World Trail Championships in Annecy, France. The team went on to take the silver medal. And that’s just a small sampling of his many accomplishments. These accolades, Diboun said, have a direct correlation to his recovery.
“So much of recovery is about gratitude,” he said. “Because of my recovery, I have an edge in endurance events. I’ve been through the wringer, to hell and back. In events when I’m struggling, I can reflect on the struggle of my past. Comparatively, whatever I’m feeling in the moment is so small in comparison. I’m thankful for my health, my community, and my family. I’m so blessed not to be thinking about drugs and alcohol.”
Diboun has run thousands of miles in 15 years. For him, the journey of recovery is a distance event: an opportunity to stretch his legs, help other athletes, and enjoy the view.
Shiloe Allison is a competitive CrossFit athlete and trainer who coaches others in recovery at The Recovery Gym. She loves the snatch lift, going from the ground to overhead.
“They’re very complicated, and it’s the fastest lift in the world. That lift was so mysterious to me when I started out. Having the barbell slightly out of place can make a big difference in what you can lift. It’s not impressive, but I can snatch a decent amount of weight — my one-rep max is 135 lbs.”
As a woman in a leadership role in a space where women are a minority, she knew it was important to walk the talk, especially when it came to helping people change their relationships to their bodies.
She said, “I got to recovery through a performance-based discipline. Especially when it came to eating disorder recovery, working out is something they typically remove from you because it’s part of the problem. Getting into something performance-based (like CrossFit), I started to get stoked on what I could do, and I could do more if I ate.”
Allison grew up in a family where addiction was a common theme and witnessed her mother and sister struggle with addiction. Shiloe’s mother passed away in April 2018 due to causes related to her illness. Allison has been in recovery from an eating disorder for 12 years and also abstains from substances.
She found support for body-positive fitness in CrossFit, where men didn’t assume she was weak or incapable. She was encouraged to be responsible for herself, take risks, and focus on function over aesthetics.
“There’s this thinking like, ‘I don’t want to bulk up’ or ‘I don’t want to get huge, but you’re not going to be able to do that without trying really hard,” she said. “You also have to have it within your genetic makeup and fortunately, I did. Not everybody’s going to have shit-kickers for legs. The chicks here who can lift more than the dudes are celebrated.”
Most of all, Shiloe found that taking time to build her foundation made her recovery stronger and improved every aspect of her life.
“That speaks to people in recovery. You have to take baby steps and be in recovery for a while before you can start adding in the intense parts of your life, like jobs and paying bills, boyfriends and girlfriends. Before you start throwing more things in there, you have to know what it feels like to be in recovery first.”
Mike Nicholas is a competitive triathlete who first laced up his running shoes while he was in detox. Soon, he was hooked on running and partnered with a local coach who noticed his passion for the sport and was willing to work with him for free. Nicholas recently celebrated eight years of recovery from heroin addiction. He is also an Ironman finisher and qualified for age group Nationals in 2019, where he PR’d in two consecutive events.
Competition and training have been an integral part of his recovery and maintaining his mental health.
“Racing gives my head a break,” he said. “When I’m on the bike or in the water, it’s just me. I’ve become reliant on training to the point where it’s frustrating to take time off. That’s when I find alternate outlets that also support my mental health or help me deal with life stressors. Other coping skills like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices have helped me too, and helped me stay strong when I’m back in the race.”
“Without alcohol, the body recovers faster because there’s nothing to filter out or fight.”
Although triathlons and races have a huge drinking culture associated with them, Nicholas said he doesn’t feel tempted to reach for a beer at the finish line. He sticks with Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew in a bottle and focuses on refueling with food and water. He said that abstinence from substances gives him an advantage.
“Alcohol is one of the most toxic substances, from a pharmacological perspective. It affects every organ, including the brain. Without alcohol, the body recovers faster because there’s nothing to filter out or fight. It’s poison,” he said.
He noticed the difference at Nationals, which is a feeder into the Olympic trials. Serious athletes, especially those who were hoping to compete in the Olympics, kept away from substances — including alcohol — that might compromise their performance.
Now, Nicholas is working to make triathlons more inclusive for people in recovery as well as people from other underserved communities. He’s on the board of the Portland Triathlon Club and supports local racers with training and access to resources.
“You don’t need fancy equipment to compete. It’s not an elite sport. It truly is for everyone. Got a bike helmet? Got shoes? You’re good. You can rent a wetsuit or borrow a bike from a friend. Racing is for everybody. Triathlons are a solo event with a solid, strong community, just like recovery.”
Jenny Nicole Adams
A former competitive marathoner, Jenny Nicole Adams knows a few things about suffering. When she switched sports and dove into the extremely demanding world of bodybuilding and figure competitions, she fell in love with the sport. It also tested everything she knew about her body, her limits, and her potential.
“I went into recovery for me, to save myself from so much suffering in addiction,” she said. “I do bodybuilding for me, to show myself that I can do hard things and that all these single days at a time will add up to reaching big goals. In recovery I learned to place myself in the trust of my Higher Power.”
Through competition season, Adams’ training regimen and diet require strict attention to detail. Whether she’s bulking or cutting, she lifts in her basement gym and works with a coach to perfect her poses. Six years in recovery have shown her that sobriety is essential to her success.
“Alcohol has no place in bodybuilding. It slows recovery, impedes muscle growth, and it’s far too many empty calories. There’s no way I could train with the focus and intensity I do if I was drinking,” she said. “Adherence to my plan would just be an empty wish. I am by far physically stronger and mentally stronger, sober. Before I quit drinking, I thought I’d like to try bodybuilding, but at that point I couldn’t stop drinking long enough to get consistent with workouts. The first step of my bodybuilding journey was to get sober!”
Discipline is a key ingredient for bodybuilding; confidence is also part of the sport. Getting on stage in heels and a tiny bikini to be judged was very hard for Adams when she started competing four years ago. Recovery has been a resource for Adams, who brought home Figure Open and Masters Overall trophies from last year’s Battle for the Eagle.
“I keep asking my higher power to build me, use me for the greater good, and to give me the resources I need to succeed. I have been given confidence and strength I never knew was possible and so much more in recovery and bodybuilding.”
Martín Camacho, sober since 2018, is a competitive athlete who found escape from his addiction through fitness. CrossFit filled a void and gave him the feeling he’d been chasing for years. Camacho was a football player with a full-ride scholarship to play on a college team, but after a rotator cuff injury, he became addicted to the painkillers he was prescribed.
In recovery, he started working out to manage pain. He also reconnected with the part of himself that loved competition. Instead of relying on substances, he discovered “natural happiness” in a supportive gym setting. The combination of gymnastics, conditioning, and weight lifting revived his interest in fitness and helped him stay healthy while he recovered mentally and adjusted to life without opioids.
“My first competition was a fundraiser for a school. When I got there, I wasn’t sure what to expect but the atmosphere was very competitive and friendly,” he recalled. “People were motivating each other, pushing each other to make it through. It brought out feelings I’d forgotten about and I fell in love. I refocused on my fitness.”
Instead of feeling intimidated, he felt right at home. The nervousness of being back in the game thrilled him and facing those small pre-event anxieties built his faith in himself. He and his team won that competition, coming in first place. Their next competition, Best of the West, was bigger, more competitive, and more popular; Camacho’s team came in second overall. He said, “I’ve learned how to harness the energy and put it towards better things.”
But it wasn’t all about winning: getting wrecked was just as meaningful and valuable as taking home a trophy.
What’s happening inside an athlete is even more important than how they look on the outside.
“That’s one of the best parts about it: just as soon as you think you’ve got a grasp on it, it will humble you with a slap in the face. That motivated me a lot.”
In training as in recovery, Camacho said, humility was crucial to growth. What’s happening inside an athlete is even more important than how they look on the outside. He said, “One thing we believe in my gym is that it’s not just about moving weight, it’s about how well you can move the weight. For me, since I’ve had a previous injury that affects so many dimensions of my movement, I have to be careful that everything is functioning the best it possibly can. That helps me monitor and be as healthy as I can possibly be.”
Finding a new outlet for joy and reconnecting with the passion inside him helps Camacho stay strong through the challenges recovery brings.
For these athletes and so many others, the gifts of recovery have made it possible to excel in the sport of their choice. And like Diboun said, it’s something special to be thinking about what our bodies can accomplish rather than being focused on a substance.