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Hanging tough: RoKC climbing gym helps veterans rise above obstacles

Friends Adam Magers (from left), Anthony Madonia and Andrew Potter climb a bouldering wall at the gym.
Friends Adam Magers (from left), Anthony Madonia and Andrew Potter climb a bouldering wall at the gym. jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

For Andrew Potter, rock climbing isn’t just a sport. It’s a form of meditation.

“As soon as you start climbing, everything fades away,” says Potter, a 29-year-old Army veteran who lives in Kansas City.

Emails, to-do lists, even past trauma — for climbers scaling a 40-foot wall, none of that matters as much as the next hold.

“You are focusing on solving a problem,” Potter says, “and if you don’t, you’re going to fall.”

In April, Potter achieved a longtime dream when he and his newlywed bride, Alexis, opened RoKC, a state-of-the-art climbing gym at 1501 Howell St. in North Kansas City.

RoKC is much more than a gym to Potter, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan. It’s a place of healing for him and other veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Potter came up with the idea to open a climbing gym in 2013. Between missions, he researched and wrote an extensive business plan as an exit strategy from the Army.

“It’s my way to do something I enjoy but still serve the community,” he says.

Key to RoKC’s early success — in four months, the gym has acquired 550 members — is its outreach to veterans. Potter has partnered with Warriors’ Ascent, a Kansas City nonprofit that offers free programs to help veterans deal with PTSD.

Potter says Warriors’ Ascent helped him overcome problems with anger and hypervigilance after returning to civilian life. Now he serves as the nonprofit’s director of experiential healing and leads climbing expeditions on Cliff Drive.

A core component of all Warriors’ Ascent programs is meditation. The practice calms the limbic system, which regulates fight-or-flight reactions. Potter says meditation works for him, and “mine comes in the form of climbing.”

Warriors’ Ascent founder Adam Magers, a former Army sergeant and fellow climber, also has experienced PTSD. As a therapist specializing in depth psychology, the study of unconscious mental processes, he has a window into the disorder’s inner workings.

“With PTSD, structures in the brain are altered, and that creates chaos,” Magers says.

Trauma, he adds, “erodes your sense of self.”

“You lose the capability to believe you have control,” he says. “You’re up against the biggest battle of your life.”

Veterans often experience overwhelming fear, anxiety, sadness and panic attacks. Magers witnessed three months of horrific fighting in Sadr City during a tour in Iraq, but he says that was better than the panic attacks he experiences back home.

“I’d go back to that any day rather than live with PTSD,” he says. “It’s not even a contest.”

Like Potter, Magers finds comfort in climbing, in the mindfulness of each move and awareness of being firmly planted in the present moment. Climbing helps him face fear.

“It’s admitting you’re afraid and saying, ‘I don’t like it, but I notice it and accept it without judgment,’ ” Magers says.

Many veterans with PTSD isolate themselves, but RoKC offers a safe support system where participants cheer one another on. Acceptance, inclusiveness and encouragement help climbers of all experience levels reach the summit internally and externally.

In May, Potter was encouraged by friends and family when he competed on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.” He placed 19th in the Oklahoma City finals.

Potter says he wanted to compete on the show — which challenges super-fit participants to tackle obstacles with names such as the Warped Wall, Salmon Ladder and Devil Steps — because it would be a fun personal challenge.

“But I also knew that I could potentially inspire veterans who may be suffering to get out and live life again,” he says. “I wanted to show people that win or lose, you should take each experience and use it as a tool for growth.”

Potter wants RoKC to help others grow, too.

Climbing isn’t the only outlet for veterans coping with PTSD. Magers says participating in other sports or physical activities can also be as important as going to therapy.

“It doesn’t have to be climbing,” he says, adding that it should be “something that stretches and improves yourself.”

Anthony Madonia’s therapy of choice is CrossFit, an intense regimen that challenges participants to push through physical and mental boundaries with workouts based on functional movements. Madonia, a former Marine and Warriors’ Ascent graduate, runs Brave Enough, a CrossFit gym that shares locker rooms with RoKC.

Madonia credits CrossFit with helping him recover from a painful back injury and an abusive childhood.

“I’ve had panic attacks since I was 8, depression and suicidal thoughts,” he says. “It was my norm.”

Only after a friend committed suicide in 2012 did Madonia’s symptoms of anxiety and panic become so severe that he couldn’t hold them inside anymore. He found reprieve in the Warriors’ Ascent program.

“It permits you to grieve the loss and get through it,” he says. “To not cover things up, but get them out.”

Like climbing, CrossFit demands pure concentration and has the power to transform body and mind.

“It pushes you to keep going and when you get through, you realize you had it in you all along,” Madonia says. “That’s just life, you go through tough times and you come out better.”

Madonia balances his intense workouts with meditation, something that wasn’t always easy for him.

The first day he tried to meditate, he thought his therapists were crazy, he says. But by the second day, “I started to feel better.”

“And by the end of the week, I was a different person.”

For many veterans dealing with PTSD, difficult memories are never far away. When Potter smells diesel fuel, he’s immediately transported back to Afghanistan.

But through meditation, mindfulness and physical activity, he and his fellow climbers have learned to push the pause button on the manifestations of their limbic systems — and find hope in the ongoing ascent.

“I’m not healed yet, but I see it as a gift, really,” Magers says.

“I am a thousand times the person I was. I became a proud human being through all of this.”

More info

RoKC, a climbing gym at 1501 Howell St. in North Kansas City, features 15,000 square feet of custom-designed climbing walls, plus a fitness center with cardio equipment and weights. Memberships range from $65 to $80 per month; one-day passes cost $15. Gear rental is $5 for shoes, $3 for harnesses and $2 for chalk. For more info, go to climbkc.com, email info@climbkc.com or call 816-843-7652.

To learn more about Warriors’ Ascent, a KC-based nonprofit that helps veterans find holistic ways to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, go to warriorsascent.org, email info@warriorsascent.org or call 816-800-9276.

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