At age 22, Nick O’Sullivan had two options: Sober up, or continue a lifestyle that would likely kill him. That’s what his mom and pastor told him during an intervention last September. Fortunately, O’Sullivan was listening.
The former collegiate football player’s alcohol abuse had gone too far. And it started years ago, with his first drink.
“I was probably in seventh grade,” he says. “I was 12 or 13. Ever since the first time I had alcohol, I had a love for it.” Growing up in Loomis, California—just outside Sacramento—O’Sullivan was a standout running back and outside linebacker in high school. When he graduated in 2012, he went north to play safety for Oregon’s Linfield College, a team brimming with running back talent.
It was a wonderful opportunity, but O’Sullivan’s picture of college was more Blue Mountain State than Friday Night Lights. He began partying with some other teammates, and soon drinking took precedent over everything else. “We’d be hungover on game day and play through it,” he says. He was staying up late to get drunk, starting fights at bars, and coming up with excuses to retake tests—a strategy that worked well enough to earn him Bs and Cs but didn’t let him live up to his potential.
The summer before his sophomore year, O’Sullivan did a backflip off of a raft and landed in shallow water. He was drunk, and he broke his foot. The injury relegated him to special teams for the fall season, and he responded by drinking even more heavily. “My schedule most days was: Wake up, work out, go to class, meetings, practice, then drink,” he says. “I was always looking for an excuse to drink even if I had to make them up in my head. I got a black eye and a concussion during a bar fight and had to play the next day.”
Things weren’t going well, so he quit the team and moved back to California to enroll at Cuesta College, a community college in San Luis Obispo. “I let my love for alcohol ruin my chance of playing football for one of the best programs in the country, simply because I wanted to drink more than I wanted to play football.”
He found an apartment on Craigslist, got a job bussing tables, and kept himself drunk. “Looking back, I was kind of drinking to … not compete with myself, but I was missing something, and I think there are a lot of people who might be like me with the addictive personality,” he says. “I mean, I feel like I never really had it under control, to be honest.”
In spring of 2016, O’Sullivan realized how bad his addiction was. He’d moved back home with his mom, but managed to get accepted into Sacramento State University to study economics. He thought it might help to sober up for a bit, but after trying and failing multiple times, he started to realize the depth of his addiction. “I’d clean up for a week or a month, and then think, ‘Well, if I’m just gonna clean it up for a month, then one beer isn’t going to hurt,’” he says. “And then, one beer is never enough.” Instead of quitting like he’d planned, he wound up dabbling with cocaine so he could stay up longer and drink more.
On September 16, 2016, O’Sullivan and a friend went to a concert. They tailgated, and after the show, drove to a bar for more drinks. “I was hammered,” he says. “I decided to get back in my car and drive home, only to end up rolling my truck. God can only tell you how I was able to walk out of that crash, and why my friend decided to stay at the bar and not come with me.”
The intervention with his mom and pastor followed the crash, and in the days afterward, O’Sullivan sulked about the house, taking life slowly and struggling not to fixate on the emptiness he felt in the wake of nearly killing himself. Then one night, while watching American Ninja Warrior at home with his mom, she said, “You’ve got to do something like that.”
It could have been an offhanded comment. But O’Sullivan considered it seriously. He had heard a friend rave about a Spartan Race, and something seemed to fall into place. He looked up the next race in his area and signed up. He had a new target. “That would be the way to keep my mind off drinking,” he says.
O’Sullivan dove deep into training. He was competing against himself again—but this time, it was it was a race to the top instead of the bottom. He’d run trails through the foothills below the Sierra Nevadas, and he recruited friends to join him at the Sacramento Super in November. On race day, surrounded by friends and with his father in attendance, O’Sullivan blitzed the course with the tenacity of an NCAA safety, and he finished with a sense of accomplishment that felt better than any night out.
“The feeling that you get is a hundred times better than any drunk or any high,” he says. Today, O’Sullivan is stronger and more cut than he’s ever been, having integrated running into the intense lifting routines of his football days. And now, he has a new goal: He’s aiming to make the Spartan Pro Team after he graduates college in December. He’s also inspired his father, a former Cal Poly football player, to get back into fitness. The father-son team finished a triathlon together in July.
O’Sullivan’s journey through addiction isn’t without temptation. “It’s really not easy to quit cold turkey,” he says. “It’s going to be an everyday battle.” Still, for personalities like his, the key to staying sober could be getting hooked on something else. “I just decided to crave training and preparing for Spartan races rather than craving for that next drink,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun to do this than a night of partying.”
Ready to give Spartan a try? Here’s everything you need to know to find your race.