“Real Fitness for Real Recovery,” is my new mission. When I was in my prime, I made two mistakes, I refused to believe I was an addict and I thought I was fit, both physically and mentally. My name is Michael and this is my story.
As a successful college athlete, I thought I knew what fitness was. It wasn’t my years on the basketball court, though, but my nearly 14 years in federal prison that taught me the true meaning of mental and physical fitness.
Before my incarceration, I had a strong collegiate basketball career at a community college in Iowa and then at the University of Washington. Playing big-time college basketball had its perks: big arenas, travel, sponsors. And I competed with future NBA players like Jason Kidd (future NBA Hall of Famer), Brent Berry (former NBA slam dunk champion), Damon Stoudamire, Tyus Edney, and many others.
But the UW team wasn’t great and all the highlights could not hide the misery of losing game after game after game. One year we were 5-23. It was soul-crushing. So, I drank and smoked good Seattle weed to numb the pain of losing.
Approaching my senior year, I knew could not handle another losing season. This was my last chance at getting to the NCAA tournament so I applied and got a scholarship to the University of Missouri-Rolla, a small Division II school known more for producing engineering students than college athletes. I concluded that if I was going to get my butt kicked for my senior season I might as well do it in my home state so my friends and family could at least see it!
It was the best basketball career decision I ever made. We were 26-5. There were still big crowds, so I was in my element.
We were conference champs, conference tournament champs, as well as NCAA Division II Tournament participants. Personal accolades included MIAA Conference MVP and NCAA Division II All-American even though my drinking and partying increased.
I was good but I would have been better without the booze, weed, acid, ecstasy, and cocaine. Given my habits in school, it’s not surprising I eventually went from being an addict to a drug-addicted dealer to a prison inmate.
When I was playing ball, I thought I was mentally and physically fit. Even with drugs and alcohol, I still excelled athletically.
After college, I had planned to play professionally in Australia, but when spinal meningitis killed that plan, I found out I was addicted to more than drugs. I was addicted to the attention and excitement of playing in front of crowds.
The rush of running onto the court with everyone cheering is like nothing I’d ever felt. Professors, administrators, classmates, teammates, even little kids gave me admiration, attention, and appreciation for my performances.
It is truly a better high than any drink or drug I have ever had and I couldn’t get enough. Without internal strength and support, I needed an endless supply of external validation.
When it was over, I felt lost, lonely, abandoned. Without the accolades reinforcing my self-worth I looked for something to fill the hole.
First, I tried coaching at Missouri-Rolla, the same school where I’d had so much success in one season as a player. I enjoyed pushing their limits and helping them get better. I struggled to find my new role: I both wanted them to have a stronger work ethic and desire to compete and I also wanted to party with the guys.
I wanted to demand excellence on Saturday morning even though I’d been smoking weed with them Friday night. As a trainer now, I see what I didn’t see then: I must walk the talk, set an example, and support them in making good choices both in and outside the gym. At the time, though, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of that role so coaching never replaced the high I got as a player.
When I discovered cocaine, I thought I’d found the solution. I’d snort a few lines before practice or a game and that feeling I had as a player was back. For a while, that was enough.
Until one Friday night after practice, a couple of bumps turned into getting high all night, then all day Saturday (missing a game Saturday night). I kept going Saturday night into Sunday morning and all day Sunday.
In the wee hours of Monday morning, I peeked out from behind the curtains and knew I was in trouble. I called a friend and by Tuesday morning I was in rehab.
My coaching career over, I did a few odd jobs until I met a claims adjuster who suggested I apply to their company. It was the best job I ever had, except I still didn’t really believe I was an addict.
As an adjuster, I worked in several different areas but I excelled as a catastrophe adjuster. I traveled across the country to areas hit by major storms, spent days inspecting claims and evenings in the hotel doing paperwork. Ironically, I do my best work in the midst of chaos when I’m sober but when I was using my life was a long series of self-inflicted catastrophes!
One of those evenings in the hotel, I drank a 6-pack of beer while doing my paperwork. Before long, it was a 12-pack and eventually a case. It didn’t matter how much, it was always gone by morning.
Like in my college athlete days, I was able to function even though I was drinking. I could still inspect my claims and process payments with no problem (but I’m sure I was a little friendly with payments).
Everything changed when I was out inspecting for hail-damage with a roofer and he asked if I’d like to try methamphetamines. BOOM — just like that, I was back in front of those big crowds again during my playing days. I’d found my Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, Final Four, and Olympic Gold Medal, all wrapped into one.
Meth was great. Instead of inspecting 10 claims a day, I was doing 15-20 a day, processing all the paperwork and doing it all over again the next day. Notice I didn’t say “get up and do it again the next day.” I wasn’t sleeping.
The feeling was so strong, all I cared about was getting more. I let a meth user I barely knew take my company car and when it came back totaled, so was my claims adjusting career.
I had no interest in rehab. I just wanted more meth. So I cashed out my 401K, took my profit sharing, and became a full-on dope dealer getting high on my own supply.
For two years, I thought I was living the life. Nice cars, big rims, girls galore, and high-speed chases with the police. Hell, I even got shot in the back and lived to tell about it!
I kept telling myself that if I did get into trouble it wouldn’t be big since I had no criminal record. Besides, all my drug friends who got caught with meth, even if they had criminal records, were getting treatment instead of prison. What I didn’t know then was that they were getting breaks because they were turning on me.
With all that evidence, when I got indicted, I got the minimum sentence. The judge said, “This case is heartbreaking. You had it all going for you, Mr. McClain and now it is all gone.
I wish there was more I could do for you, but my hands are tied. I have no other option but to sentence you to the mandatory minimum sentence that these charges carry of 180 months.” Fifteen years. It was only then that I finally realized I had a drug problem.
When I got to the Federal Correctional Institution in Forrest City, Arkansas in 2008, I didn’t know the first thing about prison life or being an inmate. But I did think I knew a lot about fitness and being an athlete. I was wrong about that, too.
An older inmate named Cory, but we called him C$, took me under his wing and started my transformation one hot, humid, mosquito-infested day. I thought I was physically and mentally fit that first day, but at the end of a bodyweight-only workout, I could not even do 10 pushups.
I was on my knees, about to throw up, and C$ said, “Come on, Mike. It’s just a dime, just 10 little push-ups!” We did crazy stuff: 1000 jumping jacks in a row, and jumped rope for an hour straight.
C$ gave us 100-yard bear crawls in the mud for talking to someone outside the workout group while training and more 100-yard bear crawls in the heat for getting a drink of water. C$ was a crazy dude but I started to learn that as I expanded the limits of my mind, anything physical was possible.
It’s said that most of the success is just showing up. That’s what I kept doing at that prison yard. Every day, others kept quitting, but I was there.
Every. Single. Day.
Over time, both my mind and my body transformed. Soon, I became the coach again and led the workouts. Now at 47, nearly 14 years later, I’ve never been in better shape mentally or physically.
Surprising as it is, I learned my true potential as an athlete and a person by going to prison. Now that I’m out, I love sharing what I know with people who are interested in real fitness.
You can skip the incarceration and still transform yourself inside and out. All you need to do is keep showing up for 45 minutes, 5 days a week, just like I did, 14 years ago on that prison yard.
I’m currently getting back on my feet, working two jobs, but I always make sure to fit in time for my fitness because I know my recovery depends on it. I’m a certified personal trainer and nutritionist and on September 14th, 2020, I’ll be starting a personal trainer business. It will all be online and if you are interested, feel free to reach out to Noah and give him your contact info and I will be in touch.