CBD has become big business in the health and wellness sphere over the last two years and no brand is more centred in fitness than PureSport. Founded by former pro rugby player Grayson Hart, they have surged forward, connecting people, communities and natural remedies and having a lot of fun in the process.
Men's Health SQUAD spoke to Grayson about why a 'buggered' knee led him from opiate-based pain-killers to CBD and how he swapped the mental grind of rugby for a positive movement he is truly passionate about.
Men’s Health: Where did you grow up and what has your background been in sport and fitness?
Grayson Hart: I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand, so my family loved rugby. My dad was an avid rugby player and actually my dad's brother, my uncle John, he was the head coach of the All Blacks when I was young. Rugby was literally in my family's DNA. I remember times we were watching the All Blacks and a win or loss would define how the next few weeks were because of the level of praise or criticism that my uncle would get in the media. Rugby was what I absolutely loved but I played all sports. I played a fair bit of golf when I was a kid, I loved skateboarding, basketball… but rugby was the one for me.
Only recently, about six months ago, through the different challenges of growing a business, I learned why I always struggled to pay attention and stay on task. I got into a lot of trouble as a kid, but I just thought I wasn't interested in school. I just thought I was a naughty kid, or I was not that smart. But six months ago, I discovered that I have got ADHD. I was diagnosed by one of the UK's leading psychiatrists and that only came about because I head the comedian Rory Bremner speaking at a rugby charity dinner. He was talking about the adult ADHD that he has and describing how the mind works for someone with it. I was sitting with my wife, and we were both looking at each other knowing that was me! So that was actually quite an emotional experience.
The reason I mention that is because it's why sport became my identity. I was doing quite well with rugby and it was something I was proud of. With school coming to an end, I realised that I had to become a professional rugby player. That was my dream. I wanted to play for Auckland and become an All Black. I felt like that when I got my contract, my first pro contract, that was when I would feel good. But it was the opposite. I got a contract for the Auckland Blues when I was 19 and I was in the newspaper and stuff. My family was proud. But I felt more insecure or lacking than I did before. It was really confusing for me.
I think now, that when any person attaches their identity to something outside of themselves – jobs, relationships, careers, sport – those things ebb and flow, you know? If you attach your identity to it, you are attaching your well-being, or your mental health to something that can sometimes be out of your control. For me, the real roller-coaster was the injuries.
When did those injuries start creeping in? Was it something you dealt with throughout your whole professional career?
I still remember very clearly when I first injured my knee. I was 21 and it was a torn meniscus, which is very painful. Your knee locks out and seems really, really bad. But in comparison to other injuries, it's not that significant. It’s nothing like having to go through a reconstruction, or a torn ACL and all that. It's usually quite a simple surgery and maybe a two-three month recovery and you're back playing. The club at the time wanted me to get back on the field as soon as possible, so we just chucked some cortisone in there to get me through to the end of the season. What I didn't realise at the time was cortisone wastes away your cartilage in the joints. So, from the age of 21, I was getting multiple cortisone injections into my knee rather than getting it fixed. I was part of that, because I was so hungry to be playing that I was cool with them doing it. But it pretty much led me down a path of just real reliance on painkillers. At the worst point, because my body built up such a threshold, I was on six painkillers a day. They were opioid-based painkillers, like Tramadol and codeine.
Was that a fairly common thing in the locker room?
I signed a new contract to play in Scotland and there was some issues as to whether they were going to terminate my contract before I’d even started playing, due to my knee being a problem during the medical. I was allowed to stay but it set me off on a bad foot. So I skipped all the physio because I was afraid of them being concerned about my knee and not playing me, so I became even more reliant on painkillers. I had a good friend who fell into an addiction to sleeping pills. He was a teammate of mine and I saw him get to the point where he was in such a dark place that he was making up excuses as to what was wrong and why he couldn't come to training. Players were going to the club to say that the guy needed help.
That was an eye-opener for me as to what addiction to pharmaceuticals can do. That's when I decided that I didn’t want to live this way. I just dived into research on natural alternatives and that's when I heard about CBD. I had never heard of it before and it wasn't really a thing in the UK at that time. I came across an article about NFL players using CBD to replace pain killers. I became fascinated by it but as athletes we are advised not to take non-batch tested supplements because of the drug testing that we undergo.
So I waited until the offseason and I ordered all these products from America. After a couple of weeks, I started to notice I was able to run and function and train. I gradually moved away from the painkillers and transitioned to CBD. It was the first time I was able to train consistently without painkillers in my system. I’m not saying that it fixed my knee or anything. My knee is still buggered!
But what that did for me was profound. I was able to function and train without meds, when for a year and a half I was on six a day. And what had become my new normal on those painkillers was actually such an unhealthy way to live. As that fog started to lift, I felt like a new human being. My mood, energy, sleep quality – all vital things that had become so impacted with all the prescription pills. It was the biggest game changer, you know?
I went back to training at the club. I'd searched everywhere for batch-tested and certified CBD but there was none. So, I knew it was an uphill battle but I didn't think the door was closed because I thought we could figure something out, or make an informed decision. When I went to the club, the answer I got, straight off the bat, was no. I suggested we talk to WADA and different brands and look into lab reports but they said that while I was under contract, I couldn’t take it.
That really became the catalyst for me. I felt like these natural ingredients could change people’s lives. Not just athletes, but people with arthritis or anxiety. People who are struggling to sleep. People who are in pain.
Being told 'no' in that moment became my driving force. I was just constantly pounding, calling up manufacturers in the US, calling up World Anti-Doping to ask questions about different supplements. I was learning about the testing protocols, extraction methods and how they're doing things. A lot of the brands and companies were not very transparent with how they're making their products and then there was also a lot of coverage in the media around poor quality and lack of trust in the industry.
That sparked something for me. I felt that if I could bring this range of products to life as the world's first, fully batch-tested and officially-certified range of CBD and natural ingredients for athletes, I could introduce these ingredients to the mainstream. And that was really how my strategy for Puresport was born.
Were you still playing rugby at this point? When did you decide to fully commit to Puresport?
2020. In all honesty, I was passed my due-by-date as a rugby player. I'd found that really from the age of 25, rugby was frustrating because I just wasn't the player that I was before that. I had become much more restricted in the way I could train and things like my speed, strength and fitness were not where they were because I had to limit myself to actually play on the weekends. Rugby had done so much for so it was hard for me to like, let go. But for a year and a half I had a foot in both camps. My teammates and coaches used to frown and wonder whey I was on my phone and laptop between meetings and training. I’d be rocking up 10 seconds before a meeting starts because I'd be on a call. So, yeah, I was grateful when I was able to jump into it fully.
What did that first bit of time with Puresport look like?
Everything went into the development of the products. Lab testing is expensive and to create the quality of products and get them certified costs a lot. I didn't understand you could go out and raise money or talk to investors or any of that stuff. I would just have the product sent to my house. We would print off the Royal Mail stickers and I would get up early and stop off at the post office with this cardboard box full of product.
I'm so grateful that my wife believed in what we were doing. She was the one who said she believed in me and that we could put all our savings into it.
When did it become not just you and your wife and cardboard boxes full of CBD?
The more time I was able to commit, that's when I realised I needed help and I called upon a teammate from my last club called Dan, who had launched an e-commerce clothing brand. He just understood so much about the technical elements of it all. My passion with the products, the innovation and the quality. But he knew about customer journeys, budgets and forecasts. I used to go to him for help all the time and then, one day, I asked him if he’d like to join us full-time. He laughed and said ‘I thought you’d never ask?’ He brought so many strengths to Puresport that I didn't have and unlocked some skills in me, too. We just saw the growth go up and up and we wanted to double-down on that. So we started to hire people. We had met James Dollah who was working for NOCCO at the time. One day, Dan and I were chatting about needing someone like Dollah to help us with our ambassadors and build on our community. We didn’t know where to find someone like that. So we decided we’d just try and get him to join instead!
Community feels baked into your brands identity. Why is yours so special?
I feel people's alignment towards a sense of belonging, and looking after themselves is at the forefront of their minds more than ever before. And I think there has been a shift in mentality towards prioritising exercise as an essential element of your life. People are proud of that lifestyle and want to be with a community who feels the same.
Companies have to be careful, because if you try to jump on that, to portray that, people are going to see through it right away. Because we've been a small company, and we've been so restricted with our paid digital advertising and marketing due to our tiny budgets, we knew all along that we had to look after the customer. We had to build a sense of belonging through our brand. Our customer is our greatest ambassador and with any touch point with Puresport, we want to ensure they walk away knowing they belong.
There is no top-down mentality. If we do Run Club, someone from our team runs with the person at the back. Or if you're afraid to come to Fitness Club because you've never done functional fitness, we make sure everyone is OK and leaves feeling it is 100% something for them. We’ve been lucky, too. We brought Will Goodge on board and he loves running. One day him I decided to do a run from the office because we’d been working hard for weeks and weren’t being true to our own personal values. While we were running, we were talking about how cool it was and that we should invite people to come and run with us after work one day a week. A run club would be cool, right?
And then people just started coming along, telling their friends and after six months it was huge. There were times during the summer that we had 200-plus people at our weekly Run Club! They would come and talk to us after and tell us their stories. There was a girl who was from overseas and her visa was up. She told us she felt more disconnected and lonely than ever and that she was going go back home but then joined Run Club. She had made friends through it and found a sense of belonging and because of that she re-upped her visa and stayed.
There is a guy that's actually had some amazing press lately, called Dan Sibal. I still recall the very first day I met him at the Run Club as he was such an engaging, smiley, lovely dude. He had just been put off work by a psychiatrist because he was having panic attacks and anxiety and he was working towards trying to come to a better place mentally. It’s emotional talking about it but he tells a story now about how he was having panic attacks on the way into Rub Club but the sense of belonging helped him a lot. That's amazing to me.
One of your slogans is ‘movement is medicine’. As somebody who was hooked on medicine to move, how important is that change for you?
It’s been huge. My belief was that my well-being was attached to outcomes. I thought in order to be good enough in life, I needed to be achieving as a rugby player. Through that journey I did achieve some of my dreams in sport but it didn't make me feel like a confident, happy, content human. We believe outcomes should do that, it’s so easy for us to get caught up in the quick-fix mentality, rather than facing what is it within us that makes us believe that we’re not good enough as we are.
That’s why I feel so passionate about what natural alternatives are doing for people. It's actually empowering them to ask more questions about how they're living their lives. It’s a movement coming from the ground up. It’s real stories and real people talking about real benefits. Puresport and the way we’ve grown since the start is about the lifestyle, the belonging and the education. It’s about making changes bigger than just the products. Man, it’s a huge element for me. It’s everything.
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