PORTSMOUTH—A locally filmed documentary hopes to show the world how Dale King is rebuilding Portsmouth one kettlebell lift at a time.
When King graduated from high school in 1999, he soon joined the military; now a US Army veteran, King has twice deployed to Iraq. By 2007 he had returned home to Portsmouth where he had lived all his life.
The house he returned to, however, was unrecognizable to him.
“When [I] left, there was no [opioid] epidemic,” King said. “When I came back, it reminded me of being in a war zone; dilapidated houses, no businesses, no type of growth – really, no signs of life. You kind of heard about all of this from afar and then coming home, it was really alien to deal with.
Building on similar feelings of alienation after his deployment, King began to realize that those struggling under the weight of opioid addiction were fighting a similar battle after treatment.
“I came back home, and there’s kind of a weird reintegration period. [Some] guys within 24 hours will go from a battlefield to a Starbucks. You have to somehow understand all of this. You are saturated with war, and when you go home nobody has a clue,” he added.
After King’s deployment, he realized that Portsmouth was fighting its own war. He saw how the opioid epidemic had ravaged his hometown and knew he had to do what he could to help.
“I had started doing CrossFit in the military, and it was kind of like my therapeutic outlet. That’s what led to the creation of the gym. Looking back, it was a way for me to express myself too, to solve these problems and to build something of value.
Building on his personal interest in CrossFit, a high-intensity fitness program that uses constant and varied movement, King was eventually able to add his own gym to his existing business portfolio.
The Portsmouth Spartan Kettlebell Club (PSKC) has been working to change the health and lifestyles of the people it serves and the community in which they reside since 2010.
“In 2018, we developed a community partnership with The Counseling Center. We started with a few classes a week and the program far exceeded anyone’s expectations. Currently we run 25 classes per week for their clients and staff in their own separate location in addition to running our normal gym here.
King believes the recovery of people in drug treatment is also vital to the region’s recovery.
“I think it’s a two-pronged attack,” King explained. “There’s all kinds of science that demonstrates the psychological adaptations of CrossFit and fitness in general to help individuals recover. On top of that, there are people who are not in recovery: people, coaches and [other] customers who come here, they are now exposed to this world where before there was a big wall: people in recovery on one side, people from the community on the other [the other].”
“An unintended positive consequence of that was letting these two people have coffee,” King added. He knows that by mingling with their neighbors, talking with others, and sharing their stories in a way that isn’t stigmatized or discouraged, people in recovery from addiction have a better chance of succeeding while enriching their community.
King’s dedication to his hometown and its people is shared by Maile Gerken Millsap, another Portsmouth native who returned to the area from Los Angeles in 2020. With extensive television experience, Millsap and her husband, Chase Millsap , knew that King’s story needed to be shared with the world.
The result is “Small Town Strong,” a documentary the team has been shooting locally for the past few months.
“At first when I saw what Dale was doing, I went up to Chase and said, ‘You gotta tell this story. You’re going to love Dale, I think it could really benefit the veteran community, and now everything has snowballed into our documentary,” Maile said.
Chase, a documentary filmmaker and a veteran himself, explained that the team’s initial focus changed after he and Maile traveled to Portsmouth on several occasions. Unlike King and Maile, Chase grew up in Texas and lived in Los Angeles, so his experience with Portsmouth – which he said resembled what he had seen in Baghdad during his own military deployment – was limited.
“I really saw the power of their story. We started filming in 2018 just to capture what was happening. I knew something special was going on here,” Chase said.
The documentary follows central characters as they train for an annual summer fitness competition hosted by PSKC called The Gauntlet. Southern Ohio’s largest fitness competition, teams of four come from all over the country to compete.
“Small Town Strong” culminates when the teams begin the competition. This year’s Gauntlet included the first full team of athletes who successfully completed opioid recovery treatment as well as a team competing to honor those who lost from overdoses.
King hopes the documentary will show his community what the Portsmouth Method is all about. The Portsmouth Method, according to PSKC’s website, is “an ongoing community revitalization project combining CrossFit, community partnerships and economic development for people with substance use disorders.” And that’s what King wants people across the country to think about when they hear about Portsmouth, rather than the problems he’s currently facing.
Currently in the process of editing over 50 hours of footage, the team at Small Town Strong will soon see the fruits of their labor take shape. By putting a human face on a major struggle, King and his team hope the opioid epidemic will stop being known as an “us versus them” problem.
For Maile, seeing the community come together around a pervasive issue is heartening.
“It gave me hope that we’re not going to stay where we are as a community,” Maile explained. “We have certainly started, but we will continue to grow from here. I don’t think it’s going to stop until we make the biggest comeback to a small town in American history.
Co-directed by Chase and Spencer Millsap, “Small Town Strong” hopes to finish editing by the end of the year.
Maile Gerken Millsap, Executive Producer, says of “Small Town Strong”: “I moved from LA back to my hometown of Portsmouth, OH to produce this documentary because I believe in this story about a small town of Appalachia who is making tremendous strides and rebuilding his community by believing and trusting his people.
Co-director Spencer Millsap (pictured R) films Sarah Wilson’s hands as she trains for PSKC’s The Gauntlet fitness contest.
Contact Kasie McCreary at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1931 or by email at [email protected]
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