It takes a strong man to overcome 20 years of drug and alcohol abuse, Rick ZumWalt knows.
ZumWalt, 43, of Hesperia plays the "strongman" in the traveling Cirque du Soleil, which leaves Costa Mesa on Sunday after almost two months of performances. He stands 6-foot-4, weighs 310 pounds and has biceps that measure two feet around. But more important, ZumWalt says, he has been clean and sober for 10 years.
The strongman now wants to talk about his past to help youths avoid the mistakes that almost wrecked his life.
The oldest of 12 children, three of whom are still living, ZumWalt called his family "dysfunctional." He turned to alcohol and drugs, an addiction that plagued him for more than 20 years, he said.
For 10 years, he has been a member of several recovery and 12-step programs. And last year, after a series of jobs, he joined the circus.
In his act, ZumWalt carries young performers off stage--one on each arm--bends an iron bar in half, and arm-wrestles with adults from the audience, pretending to lose to a child after beating the adults.
He also has appeared in about 16 movies, beginning with a role as an arm-wrestler opposite Sylvester Stallone in the film "Over the Top."
As a child, ZumWalt could not participate in any sport involving running because of his asthma, so he competed in the shotput for his high school and junior college track teams. Despite his substance abuse, ZumWalt continued weight training and became a successful professional arm-wrestler.
But his passion is sobriety, and helping to save the nation from "losing its youth," a task he plans to take on full time when he is finished with Cirque du Soleil.
He speaks to junior high and high school assemblies whenever he can.
"I want to get some stuff out there so kids don't have to go through what I went through growing up," he said. "Right now, what (matters to some youths) is gang orientation and spray cans and the O.J. Simpson trial."
ZumWalt is "very effective" in getting his message across to students, said Joann de La Rosa, coordinator of Genesis High School in San Jose. Genesis serves about 80 juniors and seniors who have been identified as "at risk for not graduating," she said.
When ZumWalt addressed students last fall, "they were on his every word. And even when he was finished, the kids stayed after to talk to him. They felt very comfortable with him," de La Rosa said.
"Many of them could relate to what he was saying," she said. "Their innocence is sapped away from them when they're in fifth grade."
ZumWalt said that he has enjoyed touring with Cirque du Soleil (French for Circus of the Sun) because it has given him the chance to address youths in different cities.
The French-Canadian circus, more technical and artistic than most traditional American circuses, has traveled through five cities in the past year and will head to six others before the tour ends in December.
Because more than 50% of the cast members are younger than 25 and many of them are from foreign countries, ZumWalt said, the tour has given him a very different experience in working with youths.
"The education I've had working with Russians, Mongolians, Europeans, Chinese--it's been a real thrill to do," ZumWalt said. "I've done a whole lot in my life, but I haven't done this."
ZumWalt said his acting "enhances this ability to reach out" to children.
"There's more riches (in helping children) than you can put in your pocketbook," ZumWalt said. "It's a lucky thing to know what you want to do."