How Rich Roll, a former alcoholic, underwent the ultimate transformation

The first time Rich Roll accepted he had a problem was when he woke up in prison, stinkingly hungover – and learnt that he'd run down an elderly woman the night before.

She survived, but his continued drinking didn't. It was the turning point he knew, deep down, was coming: "I was a ticking time-bomb."

This morning, before we met for green tea, he went for a swim at Bondi's Icebergs and loved it: "We don't have ocean pools in LA. We have an ocean – and it's a great one – but nothing like this."

It all comes back to the water

Swimming has been one constant in Roll's eventful life. He had a promising start – "I got into Harvard, studied at Stanford, and was a competitive swimmer. But I blew it all."

A twenty year hiatus from the pool saw him sinking, almost drowning, in alcoholism. But when he dried up, he got wet again – a re-birthing aged 40 that's quite breathtaking. Over a seven month period directly after the double decade respite from sports, he trained for 20 hours a week for an invite-only Ultra Endurance event (3.9km swim; 180km cycle; 42km run). He shed 22kgs, achieved the second fastest swim in the event and, at a subsequent event, clocked the sixth fastest swim of all time.

I got into Harvard, studied at Stanford, and was a competitive swimmer. But I blew it all.

The first addiction

But, sipping green tea and munching on the plant-based diet he's evangelical about (he's in Sydney and Melbourne for an event he's running with his wife called 'Living the plant power way') is far removed from his life up until 31. There were vodka tonics in the morning shower, and a marriage that ended at the honeymoon, a "two hour story" which he tells in his book, Finding Ultra.

Alcohol started as "social lubricant" and escalated: "I was an insecure person, so this helped. Then I was always the last to leave a party. Then I was the butt of the joke." His job as a lawyer, which he somewhat miraculously kept despite "round the clock drinking, which I hid" didn't help: "I hated it. There was an alpha male, high stakes, work hard/play hard culture that facilitated my drinking." The "consequences", though, couldn't have been tougher: "I alienated friends and family. It was a wreckage."

The second addiction

Following the incident that injured the pensioner, Roll should've spent more than just a night in the cells. It was his second drink-driving offence, which his lawyer advised, would lead to inevitable jail time. But fate threw him an olive branch: "They lost the file for my first case – so I didn't go to prison. I couldn't believe my luck. And used it as my ultimate sign to get sober." One hundred days of rehab and the twelve step program followed. "It saved my life. Those twelve steps save lives."

But, for the next nine years aged 31 – 40, Roll replaced one addiction with another: "Alcoholism became workaholism. I felt I had to prove something to myself and to the world as a lawyer. Sure, in that time I repaired a lot of relationships. I met my wife Julie, who has been the backbone to everything I've ever achieved. But I still wasn't happy because I wasn't close to being my authentic self."

Fifty pounds overweight and at that epiphany-hungry age of forty, Roll's second turning point, "an existential and health identity crisis" happened up the stairs on the way to bed: "I couldn't catch my breath, thought I was having some sort of cardiac arrest. I wasn't. I was just very unhealthy."

"I didn't give up. I got"

Sitting before me today aged 51, Roll has the slender physique of a swimmer and the bright eyes of somebody enlivened. As a sober vegan, how did it feel to give up so much, both meat and booze, I ask: "I didn't give up. I got. You have to shed to connect."

There are sacrifices to this life though – his car was repossessed, he couldn't pay his mortgage for twenty years and at one point he spent his last $160 on a suit so he could appear at an event with Alec Baldwin.

He has now transferred all that restless energy to podcasting, public speaking and book writing to share his message: "I want to be of service to people who are disconnected, who feel trapped or powerless. My message is, don't accept a fate you're unsatisfied with – 'next time around I'll chose a different life.' It's never too late to take ownership. What did you love doing aged 6? Get closer to your authentic self by starting there."

Podcasting ordinary people doing the extraordinary

When he's the other side of the microphone, Roll's favourite interviewees for his eponymous podcast (12 million downloads and counting) are "those living extraordinary lives anonymously". He has interviewed Arianna Huffington and Moby but his preference is for "those living lives on their own terms – stories nobody has heard of – rather than polished media performers."

For example, Josh Lajaunie, who was morbidly obese and "lost 200 pounds (90kg) from a plant based diet." Two months ago, Runners' World put him on their cover. "I was the first man to put a mic in front of him" Roll says, with a wide eyed look that all the vodka tonics in the world couldn't dim.

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