Podcast: From Homeless to Prisoner to Olympic Coach
In his teens, Tony Hoffman was a BMX Amateur being featured on magazine covers. But soon after, he was a drug addict living in the streets and ultimately ending in prison. After his parole, a now clean Tony returned to the BMX world in a big way: by taking the silver medal in the 2016 UCI BMX World Championships. Since then, Tony has dedicated his life to helping others with addiction issues with his motivational speaking and special projects.
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About Our Guest
After paroling prison on December 13, 2008, Tony Hoffman started living out his dream, with his addiction behind him. Tony is a Former BMX Elite Pro and placed 2nd at the 2016 World Championships in Medellin Colombia in the Masters Pro class. He is a 2016 Rio Olympic Games Coach, with Women’s BMX PRO, Brooke Crain, in his lineup. His story is full of redemption as he has seen some of the highest highs, and the lowest lows. Tony is the Founder and Director of The Freewheel Project, a non-profit organization that mentors thousands of youth through action sports: BMX, skateboarding and after-school programs. The Freewheel Project focuses on teaching kids leadership skills, and making healthy life choices, including substance abuse prevention, each year.
TONY HOFFMAN SHOW TRANSCRIPT
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Narrator 1: Welcome to the Psych Central show, where each episode presents an in-depth look at issues from the field of psychology and mental health – with host Gabe Howard and co-host Vincent M. Wales.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Show podcast. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m here with my fellow host, Vincent M. Wales. And today, Vincent and I will be talking to Tony Hoffman, who is a former BMX elite pro and placed second at the 2016 World Championship in the Masters Pro class. Tony, welcome to the show.
Tony Hoffman: hanks for having me, guys.
Vincent M. Wales: Glad you could make it with us here. You know, Tony, what you’ve accomplished is pretty incredible. I mean, I think anybody would be very proud to have achieved the things that you have. What makes your accomplishments so fascinating, especially for our show, is what your life was like prior to that. Can you tell us about it?
Tony Hoffman: Yeah. The foundation of me being a speaker is obviously my past life. You know, I was on the cover of a magazine at 18 years old. I was endorsed by gigantic action sports corporations like Fox Racing, AirWalk shoes, Spy sunglasses. I was ranked number one in the country that my senior year going into the final race. And a lot of people at that time would have said or assumed that I was going to be an extremely successful person and racing BMX. And that’s not quite what ended up happening. About that same time, 18 years old, I started smoking weed and drinking alcohol, much like many other people that I was going to school with. What I didn’t know at that time when I started smoking weed and drinking was that I was going to be one of many addicts in my group of friends that would not be able to control their drug use and it would escalate from marijuana and drinking to use of cocaine. And then finally, the one that became, you know, kind of my doomsday drug was the introduction of prescription painkillers, specifically OxyContin started at 18 years old. By the time I was 21 years old, I committed a home invasion, armed robbery and robbed a family friend. I robbed his parents in their home for their OxyContin prescription that they had.
Tony Hoffman: And I was basically what I call people a pharmaceutical junkie. I had no idea that the stuff that came out of the orange bottle was the same stuff that came from the cartel. It was just packaged different. And because of this pack is different. You know, I automatically assume that it was OK. But, you know, I didn’t go to prison after that robbery. My parents spent a bunch of money on an attorney after I was finally apprehended for that crime. And it kept me out of prison. I wasn’t aware of all the things I was going to need to do to actually get clean and sober, stay clean and sober. And within two years of that moment, I was completely homeless. And when I say homeless, I don’t mean that I was couch surfing. If I got a couch, I was lucky. I slept in dirt fields, slept behind dumpsters, pushing shopping carts. And on January 21st, 2007, I had a spiritual experience that changed the course of my life. On January 22nd, I was arrested and I was sentenced to four and a half years in prison, 30 days later. And that’s where I chose to rebuild my life, to set myself on a path to accomplish the things that I’ve accomplished today.
Vincent M. Wales: Wow.
Gabe Howard: Wow. That’s a lot. There’s several questions that spring to mind. So we’ll just kind of take them in order. But the first one is, is do you think that all of the pressure that you were under at such a young age contributed to this? And I know you’re not looking for excuses, but I’ve often thought, you know, you’ve got a 17, 18, 19 year old on the cover of national magazines. And what does this do to development? I mean, I just I can’t imagine how I at 40 would react if all of the sudden I had nationwide fame. And, you know, I’m fully baked.
Tony Hoffman: Well, I think there’s some things that need to be stated, and one is a BMX is a niche sport. I was on the cover of the largest BMX magazine in the world, but that’s nothing compared to being on an NBA type cover magazine or some of these other sports that get massive recognition. But I do believe that there was a lot of pressure starting from when I was a young kid with coaches, because they recognized that my potential as an athlete, because I wasn’t just a BMX racer. What I’d tell people was I was a gift. I could play basketball, baseball, soccer, rollerblades, skateboards, BMX, bikes, volleyball, tennis, whatever the sport was. I was always the best. And there was a lot of pressure that came from coaches. But I don’t know that they contributed to the stuff that I went through. But I do know that I didn’t know how to deal with the pressure that was put on me because I didn’t know how to be disciplined. I only wanted to work hard on my own terms. I kind of had the “addict isms” long before I ever tried using drugs. And so I was very selfish and self-centered. I was unwilling to work on somebody else’s terms. I was an un-coachable athlete and I think that those things actually played a bigger role and my substance use issues than, say, the pressure did.
Vincent M. Wales: I think those statements there, Tony, are very insightful and I’m wondering, how did you come to that conclusion?
Tony Hoffman: This is the hardest part of an addict’s journey or somebody who suffers with substance use. And that is there has to be a portion of time in which the individual separates themselves from all distractions. I don’t care if you have to cut the TV out, cut the Internet out, cut the phones out, cut all of that out and cut the busyness out of your life. This is why treatment is so important. This is why we’re not even close when it comes to what real, authentic treatment looks like for an individual, because insurance companies typically give us 30 to 45 days to do this. But when a person can separate themselves from all distractions, they begin to then listen to themselves or hear of themselves and they get time, which is what I did was take this time to relive all of these situations that I went through in my life. When I tell my life story and with youth audiences, I tell these stories that somebody might ask, why did you tell this story? The reason I tell these stories is because in my meditation work in myself, inventory work, these moments that I speak about had a very significant role and where my life went as a result of my attitude and my choices. And so separating myself, spending time meditating and self inventory, allow me to relive situations and take my responsibility and hold myself accountable for the outcomes that had taken place back to when I was in third grade. That was so important to me to understand how just even in third grade I was making decisions, thinking certain ways and having these isms that were producing the product that put me in prison.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these words.
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Vincent M. Wales: Welcome back, everyone. We’re here talking about addiction with BMX pro Tony Hoffman.
Gabe Howard: One of the things I want to say is I really like what you said about how insurance companies and the medical establishment is like, okay, you’re sick. As long as you’re better in 30 to 45 days, we’ll call it a win. But if you’re not, it’s probably your fault and we’ve got no more resources for you. This is not the way that we treat cancer and other physical illnesses. And I think it really leaves a lot of people desperate. One of the other things that you said is that, you know, going to prison kind of helped save your life. And I don’t want anybody to hear this and think, oh, so all the addicts need to go to prison and they’ll all end up being like, Tony, because I know that’s not what you’re saying.
Tony Hoffman: No, it’s not what I’m saying. I went to prison and my neighbors in front of me, behind me, and left of me, and right of me all shot heroin, every single one of them. It was a shooting gallery. There’s more heroin in prison than there is on the street. The guards are not there to help you. The vocational programs in California institutions, they may have been reinstated. I know they’re at least trying to reinstate them. But when I was there, there was nothing in there to facilitate recovery. I’m not the rule. And I tried to tell my probation department and judicial factions all over the country, don’t put me on a pedestal. My job is not to run around and say, look at me, look what I did. Everybody else should be able to do it, too, because that’s not the case. I’m a very, very, very small, small percentage of an exception. The rule is most people need long term treatment. The rule is most people need social programs or exit programs that are long term mentorships to help these individuals who go into gang ridden neighborhoods, who’ve been through foster care their entire life, who have not had a mom and dad who’ve been married 43 years and an upper middle class financial status. That’s what I had. I had all of the things that I needed. What I didn’t have was the attitude, choices and an addiction that I didn’t get to choose whether or not I was going to have in my life. And so the answer is not institutions in terms of jailing. The answer is social programs, treatment and mentoring programs that can help individuals overcome whatever specific hurdle they have in their life. And there’s many, many that need to be addressed individually.
Gabe Howard: You know, it’s a very powerful thing that you said there, that one of the ways that you were able to get well is because, you know, you had a good family, a good support system. You were upper middle class. Your parents were married to each other. And they loved you very much and they tried very hard. But you’ve got to put that against the fact that even though you had all of those things, addictions still played a huge role in your life. So even with all of those things, you couldn’t avoid it, but you needed all of those things to help get through it. And then you can really start to see the breadth of the addiction issue in America. It’s not as simple as, oh, well, they come from bad homes or well, if your parents weren’t divorced or well, if you had money or tried harder, there’s all these little corners that everybody tries to shove this problem in. And I think that your story illustrates very well that whatever corner you have, it doesn’t matter. It’s addiction has no reason. And it can really hit anybody.
Tony Hoffman: It can hit anybody. And I will tell you right now that I’ve been sober for almost 12 years. And the hardest person to get to listen to you as an addict is the person with money. They cannot let go of the belief system that their money will fix things. Their money has made them better than people. Their money has deluded them. All of these opportunities and that they’re not like those other people. And we’ve communicated this to the baby boomers, Gen X and the early millennials through the D.A.R.E. program that said stay away from PCP, cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, heroin, LSD, those drugs. We knew that those drugs were only found on the other side of town. The other side of town was lower socioeconomic. They were different color skin. They had all of the gangs. They didn’t say anything about the orange bottle because the orange bottle was people who had insurance and went to doctors and the doctors prescribe them the medications that they would become addicted to. And so we separated ourselves because our money put us in a different region of how drugs would be administered to us. And so letting go of those belief systems when you have financial status is extremely difficult.
Gabe Howard: You know, you make a good point about like the D.A.R.E. program and things like that. I went through the D.A.R.E. program and you’re right, it always showed a well-dressed 15 year old. And then somebody would come up dressed like, who knows what? But clearly somebody that didn’t belong in the neighborhood and they would offer to sell you drugs. And they taught you how to say no. You were never offered drugs by your peer group. You were never offered drugs by somebody dressed like you. You were always offered drugs by somebody who stumbled upon your schoolyard, no doubt, to victimize you.
Tony Hoffman: I’m so glad you brought that up, because in my speeches, at times I will tell kids when I was a young kid, I remember this commercial. There were in the end of a hallway where the lockers are in and this little weak, measly looking kid goes into his locker. And then this big bully looking guy comes up and he says, “Hey, Johnny, want to smoke a joint?” And it’s like, just say no. And then slams a locker. That’s what they told us peer pressure was when I was a kid. They didn’t tell us that peer pressure actually looked like this. You’re going to have a group of friends that you went to elementary school with, intermediate school with, slumber parties, ski trips, family vacations. And one day three of your friends are gonna decide that they’re going to start smoking weed and that there is a component in you that does not want to experience what it’s like to lose your friends and be lonely. And so you have a choice. You either have what it takes inside of you to decide that this is not who I am. I can be alone and make new friends, or you are going to be overcome by the fear of losing friends and being alone, and you will end up doing the same thing that they do. That’s what peer pressure looks like. It’s not the bad guy coming up to you. Nobody ever offered me drugs that didn’t like me. It was always my best friends.
Gabe Howard: That’s a very good point.
Vincent M. Wales: Wow. I was just going to say we need to do a show on peer pressure. But I think we just did it.
Gabe Howard: Yeah. And you’re right. All the peer…
Vincent M. Wales: Tony, that was great.
Gabe Howard: Tony, you’re absolutely right. That’s what peer pressure looked like for me. It was never my enemies that wanted to hang out with me and do anything. It was always my friends that wanted to hang out with me and do something that got us in trouble.
Tony Hoffman: And you’ve got to strip it down to an emotional level, like we’re talking about emotional awareness right now. When you look at peer pressure, somebody might say, well, I never experienced peer pressure that way. You did. If you can stop, remove yourself and you can examine all of the emotions that are at play in those situations. One hundred percent. That’s exactly what it looks like. We’re talking emotional awareness of what people are experiencing in those moments and what drives us to make the decisions that we make, because that’s what it is. There’s layers beneath the cognitive level that we can understand and see that are actually driving us as human beings, assisting us in the choices that we make, they’re survival instincts, whether we know it or not.
Vincent M. Wales: That’s also very insightful. Thank you. I want to go back to something you said a little earlier, which was that addiction isn’t a choice. You didn’t choose to become addicted to anything.
Tony Hoffman: Mm hmm.
Vincent M. Wales: A lot of people out there will say, OK, sure, nobody chooses to become an addict, but they do choose to start using those drugs in the first place.
Tony Hoffman: I say to those folks, what is the statistic of people that have never drank one time in their lives, or smoked weed or a cigarette? I am telling you right now, that number is far less than it is people that tried it. And so my thing is, if most of us have tried a substance at one time in our lives and you didn’t become addicted to it, what you’re choosing to do in that moment is take the reality that was your life and say it didn’t happen to me, shouldn’t happen to them. But not everybody is alike. If it was, we’d all die from cancer or we’d all die from heart failure because we’re all robots. We don’t live the same realities. We don’t have the same bodies. If it was my choice tonight, I’d be able to sit down with my family and I’d have a glass of wine. But I can’t because that glass of wine will kill me. That wasn’t my choice. When I started smoking weed, I said, I’m just going to smoke weed one time. I just want to try it and see what it’s like. What I didn’t understand was I had a lot of emotional issues anxiety, depression, these mental health issues. And so I didn’t have good self-esteem that were looming me into these regions that would allow me to make a decision to smoke weed so I could fit in. But then when I started smoking weed, what would happen after that? That wasn’t my choice. So you can’t blame me for making a choice that 95 percent of other people are doing. It’s what happened. It’s what happened after I make that choice. It’s not a lack of willpower. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I picked up the microphone. I went from a prison cell to the Olympics. When it comes to willpower, most people will tell you I have an abundance of it. But as soon as I put a drink in my body, I put a drug in my body. I have none. I can’t stop it. That’s what I didn’t get to choose. And that’s what I wish didn’t happen to me because like I said, I’d love to be able to sit down with a friend or go to a function, have a glass of wine, have a beer, or get injured and take a pain killer the way it’s prescribed and then stop and not have a problem. But that’s not me. That wasn’t the card that I was dealt, unfortunately.
Gabe Howard: I think it’s incredibly profound. The way that you said is we’re not all the same. So I can do something and have a different outcome than when you do the exact same thing, because we’re not all robots, because I think that we understand that when it comes to achievement. For example, if I tried to ride a BMX bike and I worked as hard as I could, I would never be as good as you. I have a different body type. I’m you know, maybe I don’t have the same muscle mass. Maybe my shoulders are too broad. I’m too tall. Who knows? But the point is, is that hard work.
Tony Hoffman: Right.
Gabe Howard: Didn’t get all of those other people that tried to beat you in the Olympics up to your level. You were, what, the second best in the world?
Tony Hoffman: Second best in the world in 2016. That’s after I’d stopped racing for three years. My athletes challenged me to come back and try and win the world championships three years out after I put a bike away and I showed up at the world championships and took a second place.
Gabe Howard: But you gotta figure that the third place person worked just as hard as you and wanted it just as bad.
Tony Hoffman: Yeah. One hundred percent.
Gabe Howard: That’s the point, though. You both wanted the exact same thing and got different outcomes. And people understand that. We understand that when it comes to sports competition and everything else. But for some reason we talk about, you know, more negative things like things like drug addiction. It’s like, well, I smoked pot and didn’t become an addict and you smoked pot and did so therefore your lazy defective and didn’t want it as bad. You chose this. It’s all your fault. And that’s really just kind of what I wanted to put out there. Just nobody would think that when it comes to anything else. We don’t think that the losing team just didn’t want to win.
Tony Hoffman: Right. Right. And this is where we go back to the surgical board. We started dissecting thought processes and belief systems and personal biases. And when a person is unwilling to use sound logic like you just presented, it’s all being blocked by personal biases and belief systems that were created when they were young individuals. They’re not aware of those belief systems at play and how they’re an improper use of survival instinct and how they push their reality onto other people is they’re unwilling to accept that somebody else could make the same choices as them and it affect them completely different because maybe they want to believe that all drug addicts come from bad areas. Drug addicts are bad people. Drug addicts are a result of bad parenting. All of these belief systems or personal biases that they’ve created from somewhere in their life growing up, they’re not aware of them, but they’re willing to push them on to other people.
Vincent M. Wales: Tony, this has been a fantastic talk
Gabe Howard: Excellent.
Vincent M. Wales: We’ve covered so many different aspects of human life in this past 20 minutes. And I thank you for that. What message would you give to our listeners that you want them to walk away with?
Tony Hoffman: I tell people this. When I was homeless, the worst thing about me being homeless was not not having a house or a place to stay. It was this stuff that people threw at me. It was the jokes that people made when they saw me in a liquor store asking for money or change because I was hungry or thirsty. It was the looks that the nurses gave me or the doctors gave me when I ended up in an E.R. And those things contributed to my shame and my guilt. I was never asked by any individual, “What’s your story? Are you OK? Do you need help? Is there anything I can do for you?” One of those conversations could have changed my life. And when we see people that are struggling on the street, especially homeless, we have a big homeless problem right now across our country. Every time I see one of those individuals, I ask myself, I wonder what his or her story is. I wonder where it all started. Were they in foster care? Were they sexually abused? Do they have a mom and dad? What was the social construction of their life and where did it go wrong? This is where their story has taken them. How do we help that individual? How do we understand that individual? Those are the things that we should be asking ourselves as human beings. We should be trying to understand somebody’s situation instead of pushing our reality onto other people and judging their situation without ever knowing it. We’re never going to cross any kind of lines and get people to help that they need in all kinds of arenas. If we don’t start trying to understand individuals more, because even though I was on the cover of the magazine, came from a family that was married for 43 years, upper middle class, I still experienced some of these situations in which people would say that person is a piece of, you know what. That person will never provide to our country. Why am I paying taxes for that person? Nobody ever stopped and asked me. I didn’t want to be that way. I’m blessed and so fortunate that my life is the way it is. That’s why I picked up a microphone. That’s why I do podcasts like this. That’s why I try to get people to understand. We need to start asking and trying to understand people and their situations so we can actually get people to help that they need.
Vincent M. Wales: Thank you, Tony. I wish more people thought like you do.
Gabe Howard: Amen. Amen.
Tony Hoffman: I’m doing my part. Guys, I’m really trying.
Gabe Howard: You’re doing great work. Where can our listeners find you if they want to connect with you after the show?
Tony Hoffman: Absolutely. Instagram – TonyMHoffman, Facebook – TonyHoffmanSpeaking. You can find my web tonyhoffmanspeaking.com. If you’re interested in any kind of my presentations. And I do health care presentations, colleges, Division I sports programs, high schools, middle schools, communities. You can find my website, tonyhoffmanspeaking.com. Also, I have my own personal podcast called One Choice. It’s found on iTunes, Spotify and Google Play, our Google podcast app, Just search for “Tony Hoffman one choice.” You’ll find the podcast. I talk a lot about the mechanics that have made me successful. I have a trading war stories that’s kind of entertainment. But we also talk a lot about recovery. Try and push the conversation forward and moving, removing stigmas and so forth. So find me on any of those outlets, I’d love to have you guys be a part of my journey.
Vincent M. Wales: Great. Thank you.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much, Tony, for being here. We appreciate it. And thank you, everyone else for tuning in. And remember, you can get a week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counselling anytime, anywhere by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. We will see everyone next week.
Narrator 1: Thank you for listening to the Psych Central Show. Please rate, review, and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you found this podcast. We encourage you to share our show on social media and with friends and family. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/show. PsychCentral.com is the internet’s oldest and largest independent mental health website. Psych Central is overseen by Dr. John Grohol, a mental health expert and one of the pioneering leaders in online mental health. Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who travels nationally. You can find more information on Gabe at GabeHoward.com. Our co-host, Vincent M. Wales, is a trained suicide prevention crisis counselor and author of several award-winning speculative fiction novels. You can learn more about Vincent at VincentMWales.com. If you have feedback about the show, please email [email protected].
About The Psych Central Show Podcast Hosts
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Vincent M. Wales is a former suicide prevention counselor who lives with persistent depressive disorder. He is also the author of several award-winning novels and creator of the costumed hero, Dynamistress. Visit his websites at www.vincentmwales.com and www.dynamistress.com.
Central Podcast, T. (2019). Podcast: From Homeless to Prisoner to Olympic Coach. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 6, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-from-homeless-to-prisoner-to-olympic-coach/