I Support Steve’s Club: Denise Thomas - Life Does Not Give Handouts
No handouts. That is one of Denise Thomas’ favorite parts about Steve’s Club. It is a simulation of real life. Yes, it is a non-profit, but it is by no means a charity. At Steve’s Club, you get what you earn.
"These kids are not just given things. Steve and Local Club leaders across the country teach that from day one. Also take Leadership Camp for example. You have to earn your spot. There is an application process. You need coach recommendations. There are no handouts,” said Thomas, an L4 certified coach, a key member of CrossFit HQ Seminar Staff, and a long-time coach at Reebok CrossFit One.
Denise is no stranger to hard work and competing for what she wants. As a former international soccer player, Thomas understood the implications of hard work and never shied away from it. It is for that reason in the summer of 2008, while working as a trainer in New York City, she approached a guy (Dave Lipson, who went on to become a close friend) doing all this “weird” stuff. “He would do pull ups till his hands were all ripped up. Then he’d continue to do more pull ups, and I just could not understand it,” Thomas laughed.
“He asked me if I wanted to do workout, so I said yes, confidently. I had done a few workouts before,” said Thomas. “It was a Fight Gone Bad style workout and it absolutely killed me. Naturally, I signed up for a CrossFit competition because I’m competitive and I wanted to prove that I could handle this type of workout.”
It was at this 2009 Mid-Atlantic Regional that Thomas met one of Steve’s Club’s major contributors, Lee Knight, who was also competing. Denise learned quickly just how strenuous CrossFit could be. Denise recalls, “I DNF’ed two workouts, and finished 2nd to last overall. I walked away wondering, what is this thing? Why does it make me feel so weak?"
"I quickly realized that you get what you earn, especially in CrossFit, and I had to put in some hard work to get where I wanted to go. My competitive nature took over in the gym and I would continue to show up and put in my best effort every day,” said Thomas.
She also knew that life wasn't going to give her any handouts so she went on to aggressively pursue her passion as her career. Immediately after the 2009 Regionals, she got her L1 certification and her L2 certification shortly thereafter. She has been a long-time coach at Reebok CrossFit One, was the head judge for the CrossFit Games in 2011 and 2012, and has worked extensively as a CF HQ Seminar Staff member.
Denise was also witness to the growth of the first Steve's Club in Camden, NJ where she got to workout alongside many of the youth in the early years of the program. She was part of several Beat the Streets Fundraisers and always admired the kids for their hard work. She remembered from those days that Steve would pick the kids up after school in a van, bring them to the gym, and stress that this was a hand "up" not a handout. Free CrossFit classes and people who care, but they had to do the workouts and continue to show up.
Today, Thomas is approaching six years at CrossFit HQ, with the last three and half years working as the flow master for CrossFit, while also helping on the L2 circuit. While CrossFit has changed Thomas physically (she DNFs far fewer workouts nowadays), the big changes she has experienced are far more than that.
“CrossFit has changed me as a human being. I am doing things physically in my mid-30's that I could never do before. I know I’ve changed outside of the gym too. I've become a kinder person, largely because CrossFit teaches you humility,” shared Thomas. “I’ve always had a little fire in me, but I’ve become much less abrasive, much more open-minded, and I don’t complain as much anymore. Ultimately, it’s made me a better friend, daughter, wife, mentor, and mentee.”
"CrossFit changes lives by breaking you down and building you up stronger than you’ve ever been before. I believe in what it can do for people in shaping their character."
That is one of the reasons that Thomas feels so strongly about supporting Steve’s Club. It gives at-risk kids an opportunity to experience this life-changing gift while also leveling the playing field. "When these kids are at the gym, they’re dealing with the same thing as the person next to them. No judgments and everyone is suffering together,” said Thomas.
Denise has also been a guest coach at the Steve's Club Leadership Camp in 2013 where she taught many kids how to do a handstand for the first time and helped them with a public speaking workshop. Denise's positivity and enthusiasm are second to none, and she was a visible reminder to the kids that people in the CrossFit community truly care enough to take time out of their lives to invest in their development.
"Leadership Camp was also a life changing experience for me. Especially when the kids are sharing their stories. For these troubled youth, this is the first time they allow themselves to be vulnerable. They feel safe and willing to share their struggles with each other. It's just amazing that CrossFit can bring them together like that."
Thomas, who has coached CrossFit in over 20 countries, believes in the community aspect of Steve’s Club and its power to generate positive change. “It’s helping them create a family through this national network of Clubs - teens from different cities come to Leadership Camp and forge a strong connection as they tackle workouts and challenges together. They put in the hard work and you see them begin to believe in themselves and accomplish the things they never thought possible before.”
And that begins with trust and knowing that if you put in the effort you will create opportunities. “Steve’s Club, CrossFit, and the real world, they will not just give you things. There is no entitlement. But if you show up, give your best, trust the coaches and support each other, you will have the tools to be successful at whatever you want in life,” said Thomas.
Denise wants the kids of Steve's Club to know that they can break the mold:
"No one says it'll be easy, but Steve's Club is an opportunity disguised as hard work. It'll give you the right mindset to face challenges that'll come up. And if you're feeling stuck, just let people know you need a little help. We won't give you a handout, but we'll be there to give you a hand up. You're part of the CrossFit community and have people looking out for you around the world."