In less than a year, someone can go from wanting to leave this world to wanting to compete for it.
John Sciarretta, 26, will be battling this October in Cincinnati at the Obstacle Course Racing World Championships — the sport’s equivalent to the Olympics.
The Ridgefield, Connecticut business owner, landscaper, and father has found obstacle course racing to not only be his outlet, but his saving grace. Sciarretta submersed himself into a world full of alcohol, drugs, jail, and homelessness until an all-encompassing will to live and compete overcame him at just the right time.
In a sport characterized by covering 5, 8, or even 15+ miles on trails, competitors must overcome obstacles along the way such as crawling under barbed wire through mud pits, leaping over fires, and hauling 75 pounds up steep mountain terrain.
The primal nature of the sport appeals to Sciarretta, perhaps because early in life, he was denied something so essential and fundamental — a carefree childhood.
The early years
Sciarretta grew up in a rough neighborhood of Stamford, CT, and at 5 years old, he lost his father to a heart attack. His mother, who battled a 10-year addiction to cocaine, had to work multiple jobs to provide shelter and put food on the table.
With a difficult home life, Sciarretta was skipping school to go hang out with the older kids by the time he was in elementary school.
“That was the first time I was exposed to drugs and alcohol,” Sciarretta said. “It wasn’t in me but it was around me.”
Sciarretta yearned for acceptance of any kind. His mom was dating an abusive boyfriend, and he was right in the thick of it.
“I had to witness a great deal of that,” Sciarretta said. “I think at a young age, I was introduced to a lot of demons — being abused, seeing my mother being beaten, and having my father die.”
On top of that, a 4-year-old Sciarretta was molested by a babysitter, who he was left with when his mother and father went to the casinos for days at a time.
By 10, Sciarretta was kicked out of school for a number of suspensions.
“I was taking everything that was going on at home out at school and on the streets,” Sciarretta said.
Coping with sports and substances
At 12, Sciarretta and his mom left Stamford for nearby Ridgefield, where they were able to move into their first house.
It was a good move that allowed Sciarretta’s love for sports to develop. He taught himself how to play baseball, football, and basketball.
He played year-round baseball, and by the time he was in eighth grade, a coach from Post University invited him to play in the American Legion League, where he was not only playing with high school seniors, but starting. By the end of that year, he was getting letters from student-athlete showcases, inviting him to go and perform for colleges. After 10-12 showcases as a freshman, he received over a dozen letters of interest from division 1 schools.
However, all of that was flushed down the drain very quickly.
He started smoking marijuana at 15. Around the same time, he had his first panic attack, which “came out of nowhere.” Once he found alcohol, that became his “drug of choice” for dealing with his diagnosed panic attacks and anxiety disorder.
“I self-medicated myself in the mornings,” Sciarretta said. “I’d drink wine or anything I could find to get drunk to cure the panic attacks.”
Along with that came hanging with the older crowd again, and experimenting with more drugs. Sciarretta’s passion for sports didn’t wane despite the substance abuse.
“I threw a no-hitter in high school when I was on marijuana and cocaine,” Sciaretta said. “I never missed a game. If I was drunk, I’d show up. If I was on drugs, I’d show up, and no one knew. Some people might have, but no one said anything.”
A deeper dive
Sciarretta didn’t slip by for long. He was arrested for the first time for breaking and entering. That was followed by three separate arrests for possession of alcohol by a minor, and then another arrest for having a fake ID. He was sent to military boot camp for eight weeks in North Carolina. Once he got out, he stopped going to school and started using cocaine.
A judge sentenced him to six months in jail, 500 hours of community service, and three years of probation.
He was kicked off his high school baseball, football, and basketball teams. He ended up joining a town basketball league, where he set a record with 66 points in a single game. He also broke the single season scoring record. He showed up to games drunk, but would still score 25-30 points even though his teammates had to tie his shoes for him.
“I stopped playing because I thought I was dying on the basketball court one day with a panic attack,” Sciarretta said.
By 17, he had been expelled from school, been to detox and rehab multiple times, and was living on the streets because his mother’s then-boyfriend would not let him in the house. The one thing he did have was his car, which he often slept in. He violated his probation and was sent to a halfway house for six months. He was also involved in three serious alcohol related car accidents in which he was never the driver.
Once he got out of the halfway house, his panic attacks grew more severe. Somehow, he always had a job, which allowed him to pay $100 a month to stay in crack houses. However, he even got evicted from those for fighting.
He lost four of his best friends to alcohol and drug related deaths. Coping with their deaths with more heavy drinking and drug use led to suicidal ideations, which forced him to check himself into rehab multiple times.
“I wanted to numb the pain of the past and all the bad memories I had,” Sciarretta said.
Losing it and finding it
Despite the continued alcohol and drug use, he met a girl.
“I told her, ‘You don’t want anything to do with me,'” Sciarretta said.
Eventually, they got engaged and she got pregnant.
“I found out I was going to be a father when I was on a 3-day bender at a friend’s house,” Sciarretta said. “I was happy because I had always wanted to be a father and give my kid a life that I never had.”
Sciarretta quit drinking cold turkey so that he could provide his child with something he wasn’t familiar with — a stable home environment. He went to Lamaze classes with his then fiancee, read baby books, refrained from drinking and using, and went to AA meetings.
Thinking he was okay, Sciarretta stopped going to meetings, and talked his fiancee into moving to Florida shortly after their daughter, Lyla, was born. He got a high-paying job in sales despite only having a GED, and traveled the country a fair amount for work.
“I played the old I think I can drink again card. I thought I could have one or two,” Sciarretta said. “I found myself out for days at a time drinking and drugging once again.”
Sciarretta engaged in the unhealthy behavior only when his daughter was asleep. Still, without any family support in Florida, his finacee ended things with him, packed it up, and moved back to Connecticut with Lyla.
Sciarretta followed and it was “back to square one.” He lived in his car and was so severely depressed that he wished he would never wake up again.
With the encouragement of a friend, and in the midst of his substance abuse and depression, he signed up for a Spartan race in Boston in 2014. Despite being an alcoholic and a chain smoker, he finished 21st out of 3,000 competitors.
“It was the hardest thing I had done athletically, mentally, and physically in my life, and I was very surprised by it,” Sciarretta said. “I thought I found something that could help me get clean.”
So, he signed up for another race, but tore his MCL while he was training for it. That was the end of his racing for the year.
Obstacles upon obstacles
The last time Sciarretta had a drink was on Thanksgiving.
“Every holiday, my friends would invite me over to their family’s houses,” Sciarretta said. “Sometimes I’d go, and sometimes I’d lie and say I was going somewhere else, and I’d drink alone. I didn’t grow up with a family like that so I felt out of place at family functions.”
In November, he finally looked himself in the mirror and said, “I’m going to fight this.”
“I couldn’t look in the mirror a lot. That’s something I avoided because I was ashamed of who I was,” Sciarretta said.
He went back to AA and worked the program instead of just going to meetings. He got a sponsor that he talks to every day, and signed up for the gym to “get the stress out.”
“I thought back to my first Spartan race, and realized that if I was still drinking back then and placed 21st, then I should get back at it again,” Sciarretta said. “It gave me a reason to go to the gym and train, and it gave me a reason not to drink.”
Upon joining the gym, Sciarretta couldn’t do a single pull-up or dip, but he worked his way up to running 20+ miles on the trails every week, hiking, and doing upper body work in the gym all after 8-10 hours in a labor-intensive job.
Then Sciarretta signed up for the Spartan trifecta, which involves completing the Spartan Sprint (5+ miles), the Spartan Super (8+ miles), and the Spartan Beast (15+ miles) in a calendar year. He kicked things off with the longest distance in New Jersey, and capped the trifecta with the sprint and a first place finish out of 1,000 people in Tuxedo, NY. That was good enough to qualify him for the World Championships this fall.
“I was almost in tears when I crossed that finish line because it was like okay, I’m back,” Sciarretta said.
Today, Sciarretta is confident in overcoming obstacles whether on the race course or in his journey to living a clean life. He takes care of his daughter every Saturday, works long hours, trains like a mad man during the week, and owns his own two-bedroom apartment. It’s a life worth fighting for; not fighting against.
“When you’re going through the course, you find out things that you didn’t think you were capable of doing,” Sciarretta said of competing. “I’m beat up, I’m tired, and I can’t feel my legs. My mind tells me to stop, but I play a mental game to push through. I tell myself, ‘If you can get through everything in the past, you can get through this last mile.’ I feel so accomplished after I finish a race. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel after the World Championships.”
With a new outlook on life’s obstacles, Sciarretta has the world waiting for him.