For the six contestants of the Daily Herald's 2012 Fittest Loser competition, the past three months have been nothing short of a life-changing journey.
Along the way, there have been pain, tears and sweat as they pursued the ultimate goal of becoming healthier, happier people.
The four men and two women contestants have spent the past 12 weeks learning to eat better and work out regularly, each paired with a personal trainer from contest sponsor Push Fitness in Schaumburg. On May 3, contestant Michael White from West Dundee was announced as the winner.
With the contest over, the participants say they're ready to apply the lessons they've learned in the real world, away from the watchful eye of the public and their trainers. Some are excited for the challenge. Most are nervous, knowing they'll have to dig deep to find a new internal motivation. And all are reflective of their personal journeys -- of the people they used to be and the ones they have now become.
Among them, there's a sense of empowerment, at the sheer amount of knowledge they've gained throughout the competition. There's pride and awe and disbelief at their achievements. There's a newfound confidence that, having survived the contest, they now can overcome any life challenge. And still, there's anxiety at knowing that being healthy doesn't have an end point -- rather, it is a challenge they will face the rest of their lives.
Here's a recap of each of the six 2012 Fittest Loser contestants' journeys, in the order that they finished.
Michael White always knew he was a marathon runner at heart -- and now he's closer than ever to having the body to match.
In three short months, the 25-year-old West Dundee resident, who works in mail operations at Elgin Community College, lost 84 pounds, or 26.3 percent of his total body weight, to become the 2012 Fittest Loser winner. Along the way, he gained a newfound confidence and a belief in himself that he can accomplish anything.
"When I look back at it, the support I received from my family, friends, co-workers, even complete strangers, really propelled me along and was the reason I was so successful," he says. "I look forward to continuing my journey."
Not that it was easy. His trainer, Wade Merrill, will be the first to say his client had difficulty waking up for morning workouts. And in the beginning, White struggled with bad food cravings. But he remained committed to his goal of eating healthy and exercising -- thanks in large part to Merrill.
"(White) came in 12 weeks ago not sure what to expect, but he didn't back down when it got tough," Merrill says. "Every time he felt like stopping when he knew he had to keep going served as just another steppingstone on his path in order for him to reach the focus and drive he has now after 12 weeks."
White says his trainer has more patience than anyone he knows. "His will to help me get healthy was insurmountable," he says. "I'm on top -- as much as I'm excited about my success, he deserves it as much as I do. I told him on Day 1, 'I hope you're ready for the spotlight, because we're going to win this.' We achieved our goal."
White is a different person these days. He never before felt comfortable looking in the mirror, and he always felt self-conscious at the gym, thinking people were noticing his weight. "I don't care anymore," he says. "I'm here to do my job, and it's all about business."
And he wouldn't trade the feeling he has at the end of a workout for anything. "I feel like a champion," he says. "I don't know who's behind me or who's watching me, but when I get off the treadmill and head back to the locker room, with my shirt soaked from all the sweat, I feel like a champion. I accomplished something."
Matt Kramer is still in awe of how much his life has changed in just a few short months. The 48-year-old Elk Grove Village resident lost 97 pounds, or 26.1 percent of his total body weight, to become the runner-up of the Fittest Loser contest, just narrowly missing out on the title.
But he feels like a winner anyway, because of the tremendous education he received in health and nutrition. "I'm amazed," he says. "I feel so good and so healthy."
Kramer, who is a vice president in sales, now sleeps better and even went off his blood pressure and cholesterol medications -- which he had been on for eight years -- at the six-week mark. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "When you start seeing the changes in your life, not only physically, but mentally, it's motivation to keep going."
The former pizza, beer and soda junkie -- who began piling on the pounds thanks in part to a stressful job -- also relied on the support of his trainer, along with his wife and extended family, including 25 nieces and nephews. "I'm so proud of Matt," trainer Mark Trapp says. "It's such a great thing to see what he's transformed into. What he's done within this time frame is spectacular."
Now on a gluten-free diet with plans to lose another 50 pounds, Kramer says he doesn't miss pizza anymore. Recently, at his godson's birthday, he sat at a table surrounded by pizzas, cake and other treats. "It didn't bother me," he says. "I ate before I went and wasn't hungry. I don't have that impulse anymore."
Surviving the Fittest Loser contest is an achievement in itself, but as far as Brian Corrigan is concerned, he doesn't deserve any special pats on the back.
"My whole thought process is 'You big dummy, you should have been in shape anyway,'" he says. "You shouldn't be getting a pat on the back for what you should've been doing anyway."
He's got a tight rein on his health now. The Carol Stream father of two lost 67 pounds, or 24.4 percent of his total body weight, and is anxious to lose more. "You definitely feel like you accomplished something," he says, "but (there's a little part of me) that hoped it wouldn't need to come to such a dramatic, drastic competition, that you wouldn't need that kick in the butt."
Motivating Corrigan was never an issue, says his trainer Steve Amsden, and even a nagging back injury didn't slow his client down. "He is an all-or-nothing guy, so it was tough to get him to take it easy for a couple weeks," he says. "I can't control a wild bull."
The pair had a friendly rivalry throughout the contest. "Me and Brian had a love-hate type of experience," Amsden jokes. "I loved making him work out; he hated it."
Now, Corrigan is enjoying the results of his hard work. His energy is "through the roof," he says, and he sleeps "like a rock" through the night. "Not to mention it's nice not to lose your breath tying your shoes or putting your socks on, or going up one flight of stairs," he says.
He's also noticed that the little things in life, like the everyday stresses of work, don't bother him as much as they used to. "There's always issues and problems, but you see them in a different light," he says. "You have a different attitude."
Katie Przyszlak's biggest goal was to be a role model for her 9-month-old daughter. The 32-year-old middle schoolteacher from Schaumburg fell off track health-wise after the birth of her first baby and needed motivation to get back in shape.
"I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and my husband has struggled with his, and genetically, she's got that strike against her," she says of her daughter. "If there's something I can do, or an example I can set to prevent her from what we've gone through, I will do that. I don't wish that struggle on anyone."
The former college athlete immediately took to the tough contest workouts and shed 51 pounds during the contest, or 19.2 percent of her total body weight. "The workouts were always tough, but they were good workouts," she says. "The hardest part was the diet."
Also difficult was time management. Przyszlak, who was juggling a full-time job and pursuing her second master's degree, says she felt overwhelmed at times. To survive the contest, she realized she had to scale back some initial expectations and be satisfied with the effort she was putting in, despite what the scale showed.
"Katie did outstanding, considering all the small battles," her trainer, Michelle Amsden, says. "I am very proud. Even though she was discouraged with seeing the boys dropping so much more weight, she continued to fight hard."
Most importantly, she says, Przyszlak learned there are no excuses as to why she can't continue to live a healthy life. Przyszlak also feels she accomplished her main goal -- helping her daughter, Addison, see from the beginning that fitness and proper nutrition are crucial to living a long, healthy life. "I feel like I'm better equipped to be able to live life," she says. "I know I can go to parties and go out with friends and enjoy myself but at the same time make good choices."
Karen Maranto was used to putting the needs of others before herself, so it was difficult at first to make herself a priority.
The mom of three sons, who works as a 911 communications supervisor in Bloomingdale, says helping others is just what she does. "I have always done whatever anyone else needed and didn't take the time for me," she says.
But she felt her weight was holding her back from enjoying everything life had to offer -- including some activities during family vacations -- and she realized it was time to do something for herself. During the course of the contest -- and despite a knee injury she suffered on Day 1 -- Maranto lost 52 pounds, or 18.1 percent of her total body weight, reaching the personal goal she had set for herself.
Her trainer, Tony Figueroa, is more than proud of his client. It was finally her turn to call 911, he says, "and I answered that call."
Maranto also gained the realization that her health had to be a priority. "It's amazing; so many women I know will say, 'I don't have time to take a walk or go to the gym,'" she says. "I say, 'Yes, you do have time. You just have to do it. My husband is probably scared because I love the life of me. This is wonderful, and he's probably afraid that the life of me is just going to keep going!"
That new life includes attending a recent wedding in a size 18 dress. "My last little black dress was size 24," she says. "When I brought it out, my husband said, 'Is there another piece to that dress?' I said, 'No, it's just that.' I put it on, and he said. 'Wow.'"
These days, Maranto is positive about her future and committed to keeping up her new lifestyle. "Before, I was just OK with the fact that I would be heavy all my life. I'd be happy with a 300-pound life. Now I'm looking forward to being a healthy grandma and getting on the ground and playing with my grandkids. I didn't want to be 50 and fat."
As the contest's oldest competitor at age 64, Tom Hampson can now honestly say he's excited about his future.
The retired Hoffman Estates investigator will be able to do the things he's always wanted -- activities like biking, skiing, walking and playing with his future grandchildren -- without worrying about not having the energy. In 12 weeks, he lost 48 pounds or 15.2 percent of his total body weight.
"I can do (those things) now," he says. "They are all opened up. I'm not in the shape I want to be in yet, but there isn't anything I can think of that we couldn't do."
About a month ago, Hampson went off his blood pressure medications. He also has renewed energy. "In three months, my wife has become concerned that my endurance has gotten better than hers," he laughs.
His trainer, Joshua Steckler, says his client still hopes to lose another 25 pounds before taking a vacation in October. "Tom did awesome this year," he says. "He lost a great deal of weight in three months, but more importantly, he has his health back on track."
While nervous about continuing alone, Hampson says he plans to keep doing what he's been doing all along -- following his trainer's instructions. Although maybe not every one. Steckler recently told him that to graduate from boot camp, Hampson had to replicate a tricky move he did over a pullup bar, rotating his legs around and upside down so they touch the ceiling.
"He made it look so easy. So I have to keep working out until I can go over there and duplicate what he did. It just might take awhile," Hampson laughs.