When the Fittest Loser Challenge began 12 weeks ago, the six contestants were eager to lose weight and improve their health. Now that it's almost over they can all say they've accomplished those goals and much more.
"This experience has been unbelievable," says 47-year-old Matt Kramer of Elk Grove Village.
"I have learned so much in the last 12 weeks about nutrition, exercise, how the body works and about myself. I have accomplished things that I thought I could never do.
"Physically, I'm overwhelmed at how different I look. It's a dream come true to be off my cholesterol and blood pressure medicine."
Kramer is finishing out the competition with a newfound respect for the way he treats his body and mind through nutrition and exercise.
"What all of this proves," Kramer says, "is that if you put your mind to it and have support behind you, you can accomplish anything. If I can do this, anyone can."
"I shouldn't have needed to be a Fittest Loser contestant," says Brian Corrigan.
But letting complacency take over his life landed the 44-year-old father of two in the field of six competitors.
"I traded myself a long time ago for work, family, stress and success. But in the end, none of those are the reasons for my sedentary lifestyle," Corrigan says. "Instead they were the excuses I used to justify complacency."
In the last 12 weeks much has changed for Brian Corrigan.
"I learned a lot about myself in this process," he says. "The biggest lesson was a new way to train. I still struggle with wanting to do what I love ... all-out strength and weight training. While beneficial, it certainly isn't good when weight loss is the goal. I've learned how important it is to listen to my body.
"Eat smart and train smart, the results will come."
"Before this experience," Bloomingdale's Karen Maranto says, "I would have been too intimidated to set foot in a gym with the 'fit' people.
"I've gained the confidence in myself to hang in the gym. Now I'm there several days a week, doing what needs to be done for the physical well-being of ME. With the help of 'Cap-n-Crunch,' my trainer, Tony Figueroa, I've learned that I'm worth it and deserve the best in life both physically and mentally. He reassures me that I can do it, if I just try."
Along with all the knowledge Maranto gained, she did lose a few things ... weight, inches and several items in her closet.
"I lost the ability to wear a lot of clothing," Maranto says. "They just don't fit anymore."
There have been lots of significant gains for the Fittest Losers. That's certainly true for 25-year-old Michael White of West Dundee.
"I can now tie my shoes without feeling like I'm suffocating," White says. "I can read a nutrition label. I can go to the store and skip the cookie and sweets aisle. I take the stairs a lot more often than the elevator. And I can kiss my knee!"
Most importantly, Michael White has flipped a switch.
"I entered this competition with the goal of losing weight. As the weeks went by, my trainer, Wade Merrill, kept telling me I needed to find my switch. The switch is when I'm gasping for air on the treadmill, but push for more. The switch is the fire that burns deep inside pushing me to the next mile, the next rep, the rest of my life."
"Being able to breathe and tie my shoes at the same time was something I wanted to be able to do by the end of the contest. Well, mission accomplished," says the Fittest Loser's oldest contestant, 64-year-old Tom Hampson of Hoffman Estates.
"If that were the only thing I took away from this experience, I would be happy. But there's so much more," Hampson says. "For the first time in over 12 years, I'm off my blood pressure medication, something I never thought would be possible."
However, the biggest change for Hampson has been the change in his perspective.
"My outlook has dramatically changed," he says. "The one thing I want to remember and remind myself everyday is that 3,500 excess calories will turn into one pound of fat. It takes minutes to consume those extra calories, but hours of hard work to burn them. This truth has been pounded into my brain through three months of daily workouts.
"Junk food, fast food, convenience food just don't look the same anymore," Hampson says. "The cost is way too high."
Thirty-two-year-old Katie Przyszlak has collected a long list of people and things to be grateful for these last 12 weeks.
"No doubt, I will take away memories that will last a lifetime," Przyszlak says. "I always thought I was good at time management. After completing this competition, I've learned that I have to be more efficient with my time in order to make time for me.
"Getting help from others is important -- others motivating me to work out, or helping me out so I CAN work out. Most importantly, I've learned that I need to help myself. I need to make the time for myself, and then once I've made the time, I need to get moving. I CAN lose weight by pushing myself," she says. "Yes, it's great to have other people there to push me, but other people won't always be there."
Then there's the new friend she found along the way.
"I've taken away a friend I'll have for the rest of my life in fellow contestant, Karen Maranto. Karen has been such a great inspiration," Przyszlak says. "She has listened to me and been very encouraging throughout this entire journey.
"I've learned it's not always about being the winner, but more about what I've gained -- pride in my work, confidence in myself and the realization of my own self worth. I've gained all of these throughout the last 12 weeks."
And one more thing.
"I've been reminded just how loved and blessed I am," Przyszlak says. "The support system I've had has been amazing!"