Steve’s Club Denver brings CrossFit (and more) to at-risk youth

On a Wednesday morning at 25th and Geneva in Aurora, Steve’s Club volunteer coaches are welcoming a busload of middle schoolers at a cream-colored two-story building that resembles a dumpy motel. A good chunk of the kids are wearing Adidas soccer pants and Arsenal jerseys. A few in bright orange rep the Broncos.

As they come inside, they line up for bananas—which may be the first thing they’ve eaten all day—before heading into the makeshift locker rooms and getting ready for today’s session of Steve’s Club, a CrossFit program for at-risk youth.

The story of Steve’s Club Denver starts in 2007 on the East Coast in Camden, N.J., where Steve Liberati established the club’s original chapter in the community center of a public housing complex. The whole idea was to provide CrossFit training to high school athletes who couldn’t afford an affiliate membership.

A few years later, Duncan Seawell, who grew up in Denver, was living in West Hartford, Conn., and just starting his own CrossFit journey. His garage was his gym. YouTube and the CrossFit Journal were his teachers. Increasing speed, energy, and strength were his goals.

He learned about Steve’s Club through a CrossFit Journal article and, as a child and adolescent psychologist, thought the program was awesome.

He knew, before moving back to Denver with his family in 2012, that Steve’s Club didn’t exist here. Almost as soon as he plugged into the local CrossFit community—first with Bladium CrossFit, then with Project Rise Fitness—he started working to bring a Denver chapter into existence.

“It’s a kind of perfect match for what I like to do personally, in terms of CrossFit, [and] what I do professionally in terms of the mental needs of adolescents,” he said. “I was honestly a little psyched that no one had beat me to it in the Denver area.”

With his new friends from Bladium CrossFit, he formed Steve’s Club Denver’s first board of directors and began the process of becoming a local chapter aimed at serving Denver’s at-risk youth through CrossFit training and mentorship. Spring of 2015, Steve’s Club Denver gained its official status within the national organization. May 9 of that year, it officially launched.

Steve’s Club holds mid-week classes at the building at 25th and Geneva, in a unit where Project Rise Fitness formerly had its Stapleton location. The property is under eminent domain with Aurora Public Schools, which is why Project Rise left, and the landlord is letting Steve’s Club meet there for free while its fate is in limbo. According to Duncan, the building could be gone, demolished, by December.

The space is a shell of what it used to be. The only equipment still there for Steve’s Club are a lone pull-up rig with rings hanging from one side, a couple rowers, and a bucket of PVC pipes. A dry erase goals board hangs on one wall, but there aren’t any goals on it. A Steve’s Club banner hangs on the opposite wall, alone.

Believe it or not, Duncan describes this location as one of Steve’s Club’s “biggest strokes of luck.”

When Steve’s Club started, the building also housed a learning center for Hope Online Learning Academy, a K-12 charter school that provides students a combination of face-to-face and online instruction. The proximity led to a partnership between Hope and Steve’s Club: Every Wednesday, throughout the school year, the school sends about 40 middle school students and 30 high school students to the club.

This is just one location. Steve’s Club also holds classes for Third Way Center, both in their locked residential treatment facility on Lowry and at CrossFit Broadway, where their unlocked residents are bused from Joan Farley Academy, just five blocks away. CrossFit Watchtower is the club’s newest location (shout-out Kevin Ogar), and CrossFit Stapleton is the club’s functional home base. Steve’s Club varsity athletes—kids who demonstrate interest in being involved outside of their school’s requirements—are granted membership to CrossFit Stapleton and have special classes there on Saturday mornings where they work on Olympic lifts and run through a typical CrossFit MetCon. When the club no longer has access to the old Project Rise location, the Hope students will most likely be bused to CrossFit Stapleton for their Wednesday sessions.

Luiz Sandoval, a varsity athlete from Aurora, first got involved with Steve’s Club so he could play for Hope’s soccer team. Fall 2015, with the partnership newly formed, the school required that high school students interested in being part of their soccer, basketball, or volleyball teams work out with Steve’s Club every Wednesday.

It didn’t take long for Luiz, a junior at the time, to get hooked.

It wasn’t just the exercise, though he saw the benefits of CrossFit on the soccer field. It was the community, the care the coaches had for each other and for the kids, how everyone felt welcome and seemed to have a good time.

Summer 2016, Luiz became the first Denver varsity athlete to go to Steve’s Club’s Leadership Camp, a weeklong camp held at a National Guard base in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., where kids from Steve’s Clubs all over the country come, work out four times a day, eat clean, and stay in a rural setting much different from their hometowns.

Every night at camp, athletes and coaches gather for a sharing circle.

“We’ve never videotaped it,” Duncan said, “but true believers in CrossFit would be amazed at what these kids have gone through and what they credit CrossFit for helping them to get through.”

“They really opened up without any hesitation,” Luiz said. “For people to know each other enough for them to feel safe and to trust somebody enough to open up about their home lives … that’s pretty big.”

Luiz is Duncan’s mentee, and you can tell from talking to both of them that there’s something special there, a sense of comfort that’s usually found with family. Duncan was there at camp that first year. When Luiz has been randomly absent over the last couple of years, Duncan has reached out to see what’s up.

“Duncan, he was probably my biggest support,” Luiz said, “because last year, I was having trouble with getting through high school and he just stuck with me until I got it done.”

Luiz graduated high school this past spring. His girlfriend and Duncan were the ones cheering him on at Commencement.

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Luiz (left bottom photo: in stripes; right bottom photo: in purple) graduated high school this past spring, along with another Steve’s Club athlete, Jorge.

Consistency. That’s the main thing Duncan and the rest of the Steve’s Club volunteers seek to provide to their students. It’s the main thing their students have in common, in terms of what they lack. If the adults in their lives are consistent, it’s often consistency in disappointing them or not keeping promises or just not showing up.

Go back to that Wednesday morning at the former Project Rise location. After a warmup and a game involving too many yellow cones to count, the kids are walked through the day’s workout: three rounds of 15 PVC thrusters, 15 bent-over rows, and 15 V-ups. It’s one step on the way to Fran.

As the coaches hand out PVC pipes, they offer various warnings and directions:

“This is a tool. It’s not used to hurt anybody.”

“On the ground next to you, please.”

“They’re not for sword fighting. They’re not for hitting each other. They’re not for pole vaulting.”

Every movement in the WOD is demonstrated and practiced, and then the workout begins. Most kids scale down from V-ups to sit-ups. When his coach isn’t looking, one boy in a Broncos jersey changes his thrusters to some sort of PVC push press air ballet, until another coach comes along and does thrusters right next to him.

Toward the end, coaches keep working alongside the few who still have reps to go. The last girl to finish in Trisha Hussian’s group stands after her last sit-ups, crying.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry. Did I push you too hard?’” Trisha recalled. “And she said, ‘No, it just means so much to me that you care and that when I come here, everybody cares, and I just love coming here.’”

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Trisha Hussian cheers on a Steve’s Club athlete.

Every session brings some sort of story. Sometimes they’re emotional; sometimes they’re transformational; sometimes they’re physical breakthroughs or realizations of some strength the students didn’t know they had before. A high school boy deadlifting more than 400 pounds. A high school girl walking with a new confidence and rocking exercise gear, asking how the female coaches got their legs so big. Another high school boy discovering his natural ability on the pull-up bar and ignoring the tears on his palms to keep pounding out reps.

Duncan describes Steve’s Club as a bottomless pit that will take everything he gives and still need more. Often, kids show up to Steve’s Club on empty stomachs. You never know what sort of sleep they got the night before or what trauma they’re walking around with. Coaches have to be sensitive and careful. This isn’t the freewheeling, no f****s given of your typical CrossFit gym. You have to care about the reactions that could come from a careless word or action. You have to care about the possible misinterpretations of what you do or say.

“If we’re going to mentor these kids, if we’re going to have that close bond, if we’re going to be a consistent adult in their lives each and every week, then we have to treat that relationship very carefully,” Duncan said.

That’s how you earn trust and gain rapport and build a healthy mentoring relationship. And once you’ve built it, don’t screw it up. Be someone they can count on. Sometimes, showing up is all that it takes.

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2016-2017 high school athletes at Project Rise facility. Photo credit: Laura Mahoney Photography

Learn more about Steve’s Club Denver and give a donation at their Facebook page.

Know a Denver-area CrossFit story that needs to be told? Tell us about it.


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