July 2007 Issue
One Step at a Time
For 13 years, Todd Crandell struggled with life-threatening addictions. Now, the Sylvania native is an Ironman triathlete who promotes health and fitness through his organization, Racing for Recovery, and prevents others from going down the same self-destructive path.
Sometimes in life, you want things to be exactly as they appear. No surprises, nothing unpredictable. You judge the proverbial book by its cover –– and it's just the read you expected.
But Todd Crandell knows life is never that simple.
Case in point: St. Rose Elementary School in Perrysburg one sunny morning in May. A makeshift assembly room pulses with excitement as 89 seventh- and eighth-graders, clad in matching neon-green T-shirts and seated in folding chairs, eagerly await the start of a 5K run, the culmination of a week's worth of activities and speakers for their school's "Teens High On Life" program, meant to inspire healthy living. The boys flip and twirl their water bottles, the girls talk and pull their hair into ponytails, and the laughter from both rises above the room's bright lights and cheery decor of art-class projects.
The scene seems like a picture of youthful innocence.
Crandell, their final speaker before the run, knows better.
"How many of you know someone who has a drug or alcohol problem?" he asks.
A dozen kids raise their hands.
A row of parents and teachers stand in the back of the room, silent. They may be surprised, but Crandell certainly isn't. The founder and executive director of Racing For Recovery, an organization committed to preventing substance abuse in adolescents and promoting positive alternatives for those battling addiction, Crandell knows something about the difference between perception and reality.
With his baby face and toned physique, and the grueling training regimen he undergoes in his hometown of Sylvania when readying for the many triathlons he participates in around the globe –– every week, a total 50-mile run, seven-mile swim and 250-mile bike ride –– Crandell, 40, seems like the type of athletic guy who's always been the picture of fitness.
Which couldn't be further from the truth.
"Don't think you can do the type of [unhealthy] behavior that I did, and that everything's going to turn out okay," he says to the kids, who stare slack-jawed when he tells them that the Ironman events he's competed in from Hawaii to South Africa feature a mix of cycling, swimming and racing that cover 140.6 miles in one day –– and he's done 12 of them (not to mention, 24 Half-Ironman triathalons). "I'm very lucky and blessed that I'm even alive."
That behavior? Pick a drug, pick a vice –– Crandell did them all. And he's got 13 years worth of drug-and-alcohol-fueled stories to prove it. Like the time when, as a high school senior and the star player on Sylvania's hockey team, he got busted snorting cocaine on the bus while en route to a game, and was booted off the squad, kicked out of school and his parents' house, lost the Ohio State University sports scholarship that was virtually in his grasp, and effectively ended his childhood dream of playing for the National Hockey League.
"For me, one drink was too many, and a thousand was never enough," says Crandell. He can still only vaguely recall the details of the time he went out to have a couple beers with a friend in Bowling Green –– and woke up two days later in Georgia. "I knew no limits."
What he does know is that he's the best person to warn these kids in Perrysburg of how easy it is to fall into the darkness of addiction. He used to be just like them, growing up on tree-lined streets in a pretty, northwest Ohio suburb with good schools and a nice home and a father and stepmother who loved him.
And none of it was enough. The ruined relationships with loved ones, the squandered hockey talent, the addiction that cost him more than $100,000 –– all it took was two sips of beer at an eighth-grade party and one very troubled past with his biological mother.
"There's a price to pay for this type of behavior: financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually," he says. "And I paid it."
Now, each Racing For Recovery support-group meeting and school presentation Crandell gives is a testimony to the achievements that can be made in sobriety. And each endurance competition he enters –– every lap, every mile –– is a chance to redeem himself.
Thirty-nine years ago, and another seeming picture of youthful innocence: The Crandell family, circa 1968. In an idyllic photo that looks more like an advertisement for Olan Mills than an actual family portrait, two-year-old Todd stands between his attractive parents, Terry, 24, wearing a suit and tie; and Louise, 21, her blonde hair styled into a perky flip with a white headband and matching blouse. The couple are fresh-faced and flash pearly grins, a vision of young love.
"Yeah, you would think we were straight out of [the musical] ‘Oklahoma,'" 63-year-old Terry says today with a chuckle.
In reality, their wholesome appearance belied a tumultuous home life caused by Louise's struggle with drugs, one that would ultimately chart the course of Todd Crandell's life.
It isn't an easy subject. "You're going back more than 35 years," says Todd's father, from his shop in downtown Sylvania where he makes awards and trophies –– the same one he toiled in while trying to support his wife and son long ago. "Most of that I've worked at putting away someplace."
Terry realizes now that Louise was just too young and headed in a different direction when he met her. She was a 16-year-old high school student, and he was visiting his parents in Sylvania during his freshman year at Ohio State University. When she got pregnant after a few years of dating, a wedding seemed like the natural next step.
The problem was, "I was perfectly ready to get married and have a family, and she wasn't," says Terry. "She was a tremendous person, but it just overwhelmed her... It wasn't the direction she really wanted to go in at that time."
They tried to play the role of happy family, but Louise's unhappiness persisted, and she found a potent anesthetic in the era's drug culture. Heroin, speed, LSD –– the young mother didn't discriminate, and the occasional overdoses and all-around misery her addiction caused eventually led to divorce and Terry taking custody of their only child, Todd.
However, Terry insists Louise was sober and determined to stay straight on September 23, 1970. Whether it was a deep depression over the state of her life, or a dark realization that she could neither live with the drugs or without them — no one knows exactly why she got into her car that night, drove down U.S. Rte. 23 and slammed into a concrete bridge abutment. It was Ohio's first recorded vehicular suicide.
Today, that misleading photo of a smiling young family is one of the few pictures Crandell has of his mother.
And having since experienced the depths of addiction just like her, "I can almost appreciate why she ultimately did what she did," he says softly. "I know. I've been there."
His dad did his best to fill the void left by Louise's death. He married second wife Cindy in 1972 (they're still together), and the couple nurtured Todd's budding interest in sports. Todd cites being awed early on by Cindy, an avid runner, as one of the reasons he was later drawn to Ironman contests. Terry and Cindy enrolled him in youth hockey lessons when they noticed the boy's intense interest in the sport at age six, after he saw a group of teens playing on a frozen pond near his house. "He couldn't have had any more care, love or attention than he had," says Terry.
And Crandell was a well-liked kid. Even then, he had the charisma and easy smile that makes him such a popular motivational speaker at schools around the country today. (Of course, his brightly colored tattoos and liberal usage of the word "awesome" don't hurt with the kids, either.)
"He was always the one out in front that everyone else was following," says Terry, "in one direction or another."
Which is why it wasn't peer pressure that led him to try alcohol for the first time, in 1980. Just curiosity, really: A couple of sips of beer at an eighth-grade house party to see what the stuff tasted like.
Crandell still remembers the change he felt instantly, somewhere deep inside himself. Maybe it was an inherited predisposition toward addiction (Louise's brother, Crandell's uncle, also became a drug addict who committed suicide), or the comforting beginnings of numbness toward the pain he felt from losing his mom.
Whatever the trigger, the second time the 13-year-old drank, it was an entire bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey.
"That first drink was the beginning of my demise," says Crandell. "It was like a bullet train after that."
High school, freshman and sophomore years: Crandell is an amphetamine junkie and alcoholic, drinking until he blacks out every weekend.
Junior year: Valium, Percodan, Quaaludes –– the 17-year-old ingests every prescription drug in his reach. And they aren't too hard to find: One friend works at a pharmacy; another's father is a doctor.
Senior year: full-blown cocaine addict.
"We didn't know for years that he was even drinking," says Terry. "He was incredibly good at hiding things."
But the problems became painfully clear when Crandell was in the 12th grade.
"That whole incident that took place with Todd sort of forced me to find myself as a coach, and recognize my own moral compass," says Jim Cooper, Northview High School's hockey coach for the past three decades and Crandell's onetime mentor on the ice. "It's very easy to say you have that compass, until you face some big moral encounter."
Cooper's came in 1985 when, as a young coach in a community that loves its sports teams, Todd Crandell, the star goalie on a hockey squad headed toward a championship –– and the boy Cooper had bonded with while coaching him in lessons and junior leagues as a child –– was discovered doing drugs on the way to a game.
Today, the 54-year-old coach calls it a "crossroads decision." He had no doubt that if he got rid of Crandell, a linchpin and leader of the team, Northview's hockey aspirations for the season would be over.
He was right.
"I remember, when it all went down," says Cooper, who informed officials of his goalie's drug use, "I had a player walk right up to me and say, ‘You just threw away the state title.'"
For Crandell, things got even worse. In addition to being removed from the team, the high school expelled him, which meant he wouldn't graduate.
It was all too much for Terry and Cindy. They kicked him out of the house.
"Here I am, just turned 18 years old," Crandell remembers. "I have my dad looking at me with tears running down his face, saying, ‘This is the worst day of my life since your mother committed suicide.'"
To be sure, there were lower moments to come. Like the instances during his 13 years of addiction when he lived in his car and crack houses. Or, the rainy Christmas day he spent homeless on the beach in Florida, alone with a bottle of vodka, trying to think of reasons why he shouldn't kill himself.
But those early disappointments and fractured relationships in Sylvania during his teen-aged years seem to be the ones that haunt him most. They're also the ones that Crandell has worked hardest to fix since April 15, 1993, when he finally decided he'd had enough and abruptly quit drugs and alcohol for good –– just a day after he was arrested for his third DUI and, he says, registered a blood-alcohol content level of .36 (.40 is considered comatose).
Crandell dove headfirst into sobriety: He attended countless Alcoholics Anonymous support group meetings, read books on addiction, absorbed the words of counselors, "anything I could think of to learn more about drug use and alcoholism," he says. "And I started to see that my life was getting better and better without doing drugs. So, I started to set additional goals for myself."
That including trying out and winning a spot as a backup goalie for the semi-professional East Coast Hockey League team the Toledo Storm in 1994.
"That was really a moment of victory for him," says Cooper, who once again has the close relationship with Crandell that was frayed for years after the coach kicked him off the high school team. "I think that in the back of his mind, he always had this regret that he threw away so much God-given talent. Like he didn't even give himself a chance."
Crandell earned a business degree from Lourdes College in 1998, and he recently earned his master's degree in counseling from Michigan's Spring Arbor University. (Back in 1985, while still very much an addict, Crandell had the presence of mind to convince his parents to let him move back into the house so he could re-enroll at Northview and earn his high-school diploma.)
But one of his biggest accomplishments is the movement that he's made his life's work since 2001: Racing For Recovery.
Crandell had already started competing in Ironman competitions by then –– the first one in Florida in 1999 –– as a more productive outlet for the intense energy and drive that he'd once channeled into drugs and alcohol. But he was inspired to share his message of hope with others still battling addiction, as well as to deter youth from making the same bad decisions he did by promoting health and fitness.
Today, Racing For Recovery's activities include support-group meetings and race events held across the country, such as the Half Iron Man Triathalon that takes place in Sylvania every June.
"Racing For Recovery does as much for Todd every day of the week as it does for anyone who participates in those events," says his father, who lives just a few miles from Todd, his wife Melissa, and their four children: Skylar, 9, Konor, 6, Madison, 4, and Mason, 2. "That's his path to staying sober and being where he needs to be."
In fact, everything seems to be going well for Crandell now. He co-wrote a book on his life, From Addict to Ironman (Breakaway Books). His schedule is filled with speaking engagements from New Hampshire to the Virgin Islands. He even has a reality-TV show deal in the works, the brainchild of Hollywood screenwriters who came across Crandell's story and envision him intervening in lives of addicts on a series next year.
For once, it isn't another case of perception not matching reality. Todd Crandell really is the picture of happiness.
And everything is just as it appears.
For more information about Racing For Recovery, call 419/824-8462 or visit www.racingforrecovery.com