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Adventure Sports: Letting Loose 'Adventure Wellness' Uses Extreme Sports to Help People Combat Their Fears
The Atlanta Constitution
Michelle Hiskey, Staff
March 02, 2001

Terror so filled Cindy Thomas-Watts that her ears rang. She stood at the top of a 90-foot rock face, wearing a harness and holding a rope with a death grip. She was about to rappel to the bottom.

Facing her phobia on this Sunday in October was her attempt to take control of a life falling apart. Going through the messy divorce of a short-lived marriage, Thomas-Watts, 45, felt she needed a physical challenge or she'd end up hospitalized for depression. She knew the problem signs, because 15 years earlier, she'd battled cocaine addiction, alcoholism and bulimia, and then found a career helping people in recovery.

She took the first terrifying step backward off that cliff, and before the day was done, felt her life change in a profound way. Grappling and dangling down the rock, suffering dry heaves, she discovered she wasn't the meek, passive Junior Leaguer she thought others expected. Rappelling made her feel powerful and assertive, and she wanted to give that feeling to others --- especially those in recovery.

"I did something I never thought I was capable of doing, and things shifted in me," she said. "We all have a bold spirit, we just have to tap into it and reclaim it."

"Adventure wellness" is the term used by Thomas-Watts and Jonathan "Jono" Senk, the personal trainer and adventure racer from Roswell who guided her on that first descent in North Carolina. They recently formed Extreme Resources to take others on "training evolutions," a combination of adventures such as rappelling, climbing, kayaking and hiking, designed to physically challenge and spiritually change each participant.

Programs like Outward Bound pioneered the concept of facing one's demons in an unfamiliar and sometimes scary environment; the niche Extreme Resources hopes to create is to offer these sorts of exhausting, muddy encounters with nature in a notch of national parkland inside the Perimeter, along the Chattahoochee River.

Part of the theory is to challenge the natural inclination to protect one's self, such as the novice rappeller's tendency to hug the rock instead of leaning back and descending easily. Letting go in nature, Thomas-Watts believes, can empower someone entrenched in "self-defeating behaviors" like addictions.

More functional people, though, can also benefit. Corey Prince, a human resources manager for YWCA of Greater Atlanta, gave himself an unforgettable 32nd birthday gift. One afternoon, Prince, who can't swim, faced his fear of the water by canoeing, and rappelled despite his fear of heights. In turn, he realized he could overcome other misperceptions holding him back.

"I always dreamed of doing different things with my career, and feared what would happen if I failed," he said. "And I've been afraid of some small things, like getting my wisdom teeth pulled . . . but now, I'm going to get it done. You know what? It's like rappelling. The fear of the unknown gets you. Once you dive into it, it's not that bad." He hopes to recruit fellow program managers at the Y to return for an Extreme Resources team-building challenge.

Inspiration and encouragement came from Thomas-Watts and Senk, a chiseled, stubbled-faced former Army Ranger who led the group paddling, scrambling up a steep, muddy climb by holding onto tree roots, rappelling down a rock face and hiking in the dark --- within a few miles of the Powers Ferry landing on the Chattahoochee. All the while Senk pumped them up.

"Failure is not an option," he likes to say, when he's not yelling, "Yeah bay-bee!" Senk wants everyone to leave a training evolution thinking, "If I can make it through that, then I can make it through anything."

When she's not involved with Extreme Resources, Thomas-Watts continues to work in community relations for a treatment and recovery center. She rappels whenever she can. She's no longer timid, and springs off the rock like Spiderman. She'll stop and hang off the rock to enjoy a hawk lazing by at eye level. In a place that inspired fear in her a half-year ago, she now finds peace and power.


Copyright 2001 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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