John Davis isn’t your run of the mill counselor. Although he has a clinical master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a certified addictions counselor (CACII), he doesn’t spend much time in his office.
Leslie Gould, director of programs at The 2xtreme Foundation says that she just replaced the cushions on the 20-year old couch in Davis's office. “That’s how infrequently these kids are sitting down.”
Davis doesn’t use a traditional approach because he doesn’t work with a traditional population. Instead, he works exclusively with at-risk, adolescent males.
“The average population is freaked out by the guys I work with,” says Davis. “These kids are dealing with divorce, trauma, parents who are self-medicating, abuse, drugs, you name it. I had a guy come in who was shot in the back three times over selling three pounds of marijuana. If my practice is extreme, it’s because I need to match the extreme nature of what comes in the door.”
Davis’s approach is called experiential therapy. “I’m in Starbucks a lot,” says Davis. “I hike a lot with the kids. I take them to places they feel safe. And when they feel safe, they can slow down enough to hear me.”
Gould explains that one of the boys Davis is counseling was having a hard time finding a job, so Davis took him to 7/11 and mentored him through the application process.
“He got hired on the spot and started working three days later,” says Gould. “John takes these boys to the grocery store. He teaches them how to engage with the cashier and the bagger in a positive way. He is always putting them in situations where they can keep learning and keep connecting.”
Sometimes these situations are physically grueling. Through his 2xtreme Dream Program, Davis takes boys through a nine-month training program that culminates in climbing a mountain in Africa, South America, Europe, or Russia.
“It’s about them living a metaphor, which is that life is a challenge,” says Davis. “Life is a mountain.”
Davis can get away with talking in metaphors to teenagers, because he has serious challenges of his own. He is currently battling motor neuron disease, a degenerative disease that affects the nerves in the spine and brain that control muscle function.
As Davis explains it, "Motor neuron disease is a degenerative condition where your neurons tell your muscles, 'We don't need you.'"
Once an NCAA All-American swimmer and USA team member in college, Davis is now a Challenged Athlete. When he runs today, he has to focus on the ground so his brain will tell his feet to land.
"As a collegiate athlete I had total control and power over my body. My physicality was how I connected to the world. Now I trip. A lot.”
A doctor told Davis that as long as he had muscle function, he had to "move or die." Despite the fact that he was in severe pain from compressed discs, synovial cysts, foot drop, permanent nerve damage, and arthritis in his spine, Davis began swimming and walking. In 2015, he had spinal fusion surgery to help alleviate the pain, even through the risk was high that he could further exacerbate his condition.
"I want to work out," he says. "I love it. But I also have to work out. It's not a choice. For me, movement is life."
In July of 2015, as Davis was rehabbing from his surgery by walking on trails, he found himself in the middle of preparations for XTERRA Beaver Creek.
He was so inspired by the race and the athletes that decided he would come back to XTERRA Beaver Creek in 2016 - as a competitor - which he did.
Davis was so motivated by finishing that he made a goal to bring 17 people to compete in the 2017 XTERRA Beaver Creek race, which will be held next weekend in Avon, Colorado.
“I want to be clear that I’m not bringing trained athletes,” he says. “I’m bringing 17 brave souls who know that every step they take in the race means they can accomplish something far greater in their lives. Triathlon is a metaphor. Triathlon is a stepping stone.”
Eighteen-year old Jack was suspended from high school five times before he began therapy with 2xtreme. He’s already a solid mountain biker, but the last time he swam was when he was six, and had to swim a lap in order to use the pool's water slide.
"Jack and I decided lessons would be a good idea," says John. "Because we have some incredible people getting involved in 2xtreme, Jack's first swim lesson was with Susan Williams, an Olympic bronze medal winner in Triathlon at the 2004 Athens Games."
Two-time Pan Am Champ Deanna McCurdy and her husband David are also helping the athletes get ready for XTERRA Beaver Creek. The McCurdys met some of the boys at a team training in Littleton and helped coach them on the mountain bike. David spent some time tuning up their bikes and fixed a set of broken handlebars.
"Today, Deanna showed up at the lake and swam with Jack stroke for stroke," says Davis. "Last week David was out on an early morning ride and recognized Joey, coming up behind him on the trail. He yelled, 'Hey Joey,' and asked him why he didn't have a helmet. These guys are starting to learn that people care about them."
"I didn't get to meet some of the 2xtreme guys and their families until a couple of weeks ago at a swim/run practice," said Deanna McCurdy. "I talked with one of the boys' moms, who was full of questions about the race - should she get her son a wetsuit? What was the lake like? What should he eat for breakfast before the race? I realized that this race is so much more than merely training and racing to these kids and their families."
Joey is 16 and his father is an addict. After Joey's parents' painful divorce, he stopped attending school and started self-medicating. Joey was arrested three times and had a GPA of .8 before working with Davis.
Today, Joey has made the biggest turnaround in Columbine High School history.
“Now Joey has a 4.0 GPA and has been sober for 9 months,” says Davis. “Last week he bought this piece of junk mountain bike that weighs about 5000 pounds and he’s training on trails he has no right to be on.”
Nich, 20, is a challenged athlete with Scheuermans Kyphosis - a degenerative spine disorder. He also suffers from complex PTSD after watching his father suffer a violent heart attack when he was young.
“When Nich came to me, he was 6’4” and 124 pounds because of his spinal condition” said Davis. “Today, Nich is attending University of Colorado, Denver, where he has a 3.7 GPA and he's a healthy 194 pounds. And despite the fact that his spine is fused from L3 to C6 week, next week, he'll be an XTERRA athlete.”
“Ultimately, the guys I’m bringing to XTERRA Beaver Creek have learned how to be humble,” continues Davis. “But they also want to be seen. They want to tell their story so you know that today, they are better men.”
To register for XTERRA Beaver Creek, visit www.xterraplanet.com