Getting knocked down—and getting back up—has been key to 24 Hour Fitness member Brett Churchill’s career. That’s because Churchill has done stints as a stuntman on television series such as “Nash Bridges”—in addition to his work as a sports photographer and his lifelong martial arts practice and passion for adventure sports.
But life has given Churchill some hard knocks, too, and it’s his indomitable spirit that inspires his gym community. He caught the attention of the director of photography at a 24 Hour Fitness brand shoot, when Churchill, then 55, was working through his own training session including full splits and roundhouse kicks. Churchill was an avid swimmer and recalls he was introduced to martial arts when Marines visited his elementary school and showed his class several moves—but it was Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” that got him hooked. Fascinated by Evil Knievel, Churchill began riding BMX as well.
Despite his passion, Churchill’s mother wouldn’t let her young son join a martial arts studio. Initially, Churchill learned from his friend’s brother, and trained in his own garage with basic boxing gear including a speed bag, a heavy bag and free weights. As a young adult, he began training formally with taekwondo Grand Master Byong Yu, who is now renowned as a 9th-degree black belt, recipient of the Martial Arts World Federation Lifetime Achievement Award—and the expert behind many actors’ outstanding martial arts performances in film and television. Churchill also continued to add adventure sports such as mountain biking and wakeboarding to his pursuits.
Two lucky breaks
Then Churchill was hit by a car on a bike ride home. Churchill’s take on the accident? “Even though I was thrown over the car, I wasn’t seriously injured because I’d just come from training.” The accident was Churchill’s introduction to physical therapy and his first exposure to strength training for rehabilitation.
Studying photography and continuing to train hard, Churchill got two lucky breaks. He was working as a stand-in on stunt work on actor Don Johnson’s 1990s series, “Nash Bridges,” when the X Games came to San Francisco. The show and the games both took place on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, and while waiting for his next scene, Churchill got to meet some of the professional athletes. He was invited to ride in the Mastercraft chase boat during the wakeboard competition and shot legends Shaun Murray and Tara Hamilton. His photography instructor encouraged him to sell the photos (Fox Racing and Mastercraft bought them), and in 2001, ESPN asked Churchill to photograph street skate and wakeboarding for the X Games in Philadelphia.
With a burgeoning career in sports photography and simultaneous success competing in USA Taekwondo events, Churchill was earning attention from major brands sponsoring the X Games as well as the Oakland Raiders. He began shooting for that NFL team, and then life took another turn. Both of Churchill’s parents became ill: His mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and his father was diagnosed with cancer. Churchill’s truck was totaled by a negligent driver.
Still, Churchill says, “This is when I got good.” He’d started training in hapkido as well as training other athletes and he was in demand as an NFL and extreme sports photographer. He enjoyed several years of success until he suffered an accident that damaged his vision in his “shooting” eye and ended his photography career.
His solution? Train harder and work harder. Churchill turned to heavy labor and scrapping steel to make ends meet and continued to enter mountain bike and wakeskating competitions in hopes of regaining extreme sports sponsors’ attention at a time when most athletes have “aged out.” Not one to let go of his dreams, he continued his martial arts regimen, began work on a photo book project leveraging his sports acumen, and began training to resume work in front of the camera as a stuntman and actor.
The COVID-19 pandemic put Churchill’s rebound regimen to the test, as his options for training were suddenly limited. He says he adapted by getting up “at 5 or 6 in the morning, and I would go to the parking lot and stretch then do hundreds of kicks: front kicks, roundhouse kicks, side kicks and turnback kicks.” Three sets of 100 push-ups and 100 sit-ups and a one- or two-mile-long run completed his quarantine workout.
Putting things back together
Yet another car accident set Churchill back with a sprained neck and torn ligaments. Churchill is glad to be back in the gym, where he has access to equipment that can help him rebuild safely. “I use 24 Hour Fitness mainly to put myself back together,” he explains, adding, “With the TRX and equipment like the assisted pull-up machine, I’m working to rehab my neck to get back to normal.”
Despite the twists and turns of Churchill’s fitness journey, he hopes to return to stunt action and doing “as much wakeskating on film as I can” in order to be rediscovered by sponsors such as Red Bull and Vans. He summarizes his formula for navigating life-altering challenges as part reflection, part self-discovery:
- The best thing anybody ever told me was what my taekwondo master said when I earned my first-degree black belt. It took me years to get that degree and now I was graduating, and he said, “This is first day of your life—now, it’s time to train in other styles.”
- During the shutdown I found out that I can overcome a lot of stress and pain by training.
- My advice for anyone who’s upset or suffered a setback is to move in some way. You don’t have to be in shape: At least get up and walk around the block. It will make you feel better. And if you are in shape, go do your best—work out as hard as you can, and add some extra reps to everything. You’ll wake up sore, but it will help you forget your setback.
Results not typical and may vary per individual. Please consult a physician before starting or changing a fitness routine. Personal training and virtual personal training available to 24 Hour Fitness members for an additional fee.
Photo credits: Brett Churchill; Tom Casey, box24studio.com