What a difference a year makes.
As the 2012 Fittest Loser Challenge contestants reflect back on life just one year ago, a recurring theme is evident -- change.
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The first-place finisher, Michael White of West Dundee, who lost 84 pounds during the course of the 12-week competition, achieved a goal for his health coupled with a promotion at work.
"I went from being a big dreamer to a big doer," White says.
While he admits to putting about a dozen pounds back on since the challenge ended in May, he's aware there's no room for excuses.
"My greatest challenge now is fighting temptation and sticking to a routine," he says.
A change in work duties has White spending most of his day behind a desk. His previous position, delivering mail throughout the sprawling Elgin Community College campus, was built-in exercise.
"I used to walk eight miles a day at work," White recalls.
Participating in the Fittest Loser Challenge left an indelible mark on the 26-year-old. It comes down to three simple words, according to White.
"It is possible -- whether it's a weight-loss goal, a career goal or a life goal."
The competition pitted six participants against each other to see who could shed the most weight percentage-wise over a three-month period. Since the competition ended in May, each participant can attest to the lasting changes the contest has brought about in their lives.
Now, we're seeking contestants for the 2013 Fittest Loser, with a 12-week workout and dieting program beginning in early February. For the fifth year in a row, Push Fitness and the Daily Herald are partnering to present the challenge to readers.
"We're looking for hard workers who need direction," says Joshua Steckler, co-owner of Push Fitness in Schaumburg. "Someone who is willing to face their weaknesses and admit that excuses haven't accomplished anything."
"Education, accountability and motivation," according to Push Fitness co-owner Mark Trapp are the three words he and all the personal trainers who work with the Fittest Loser participants stress to the individuals they work with.
Matt Kramer of Elk Grove Village can still recall the day that changed his life. It was the day he received word that he'd been selected as one of six contestants in the annual Fittest Loser Challenge.
"I could not believe that I was chosen for this chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way I was living," Kramer says.
He started the competition last February at 375 pounds. Today, he weighs 268 pounds. Kramer has continued to work out with his trainer, Mark Trapp.
"Mark has really helped me increase my endurance, strength and range of motion. He has helped me so much and encouraged me to continue to become healthier," Kramer says.
"My biggest challenge is with food," he admits. "I love food and sometimes I make a poor choice with what I eat. I know that I'll have to work harder during my workouts to make up for it."
A year ago he had severe sleep apnea, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
"I just had a six-month checkup with my doctor," Kramer says. "After years of listening to him lecture me about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, it was awesome to see the smile on his face when he saw me for the first time since the beginning of the contest. He took my blood pressure three times because he couldn't believe what he saw. It read 114/67, down from 147/94 less than a year ago."
Katie Przyszlak of Schaumburg had some news from her doctor as well. But this time is was Katie and her husband, Tone, who are doing the smiling.
"Shortly after the Fittest Loser Challenge ended," Przyszlak says, "we found out we're pregnant. The day before our daughter Addison's first birthday, we were told that not only would we be welcoming one baby, but two!"
Although Katie is gaining weight because of the pregnancy, she is mindful of the lessons learned during the contest.
"I continue to eat a lot of meat, fruits and vegetables," she says. "I try to avoid carbs and walk when possible. My biggest challenge is not getting in the mindset that I can eat whatever I want just because I'm pregnant."
Brian Corrigan's weight has stayed much the same, fluctuating a few pounds up or down.
"The good thing now is that when I go up a few," he says, "I get motivated to get back down and refocus."
The Thanksgiving holiday was a clear indicator of the change in Corrigan's lifestyle.
"It had become a tradition for the men in the family to make a McDonald's run before kicking off the cooking," Corrigan says. "This year, the entire family ran the Dan Gibbons Turkey Trot 5K."
The annual event held in Elmhurst benefits at-risk families and individuals in DuPage County. On this Thanksgiving, there were no stops at McDonald's for the Corrigan clan.
"The way I look at myself and my life is different," he says. "I am much more cognizant of my well-being, of what I eat and how much. Mentally I feel much better and continue to get compliments on my appearance and success in the Fittest Loser."
Since the competition ended in May, Tom Hampson, at 65, the oldest competitor to participate so far, has lost an additional 20 pounds.
"I'm much more physically active," Hampson says. "Outdoor activities have opened up for me again."
And he continues to check in with his trainer, Joshua Steckler, who helps keep him focused and on track.
"Left on my own, I could return to my lazy, slothful ways," he says.
Zumba classes several nights a week are keeping Karen Maranto active and helping her maintain her contest-ending weight.
"My dog loves the exercise he gets on long walks several times a day," Maranto says.
"The Fittest Loser Challenge has changed my life forever," she says. "I am living a healthy life and staying active. The Fittest Loser and Push Fitness have given me tools to carry for the rest of my life. I have a new outlook on the future. I feel like a flower just blossoming in life."
Steckler and Trapp never get tired of hearing, "you changed my life," from their clients.
"But I will never take all the credit," Steckler says. "So much of what we do is to awaken the determination that lies within."
To apply for the 2013 Fittest Loser Challenge, http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/fittestloser2013. The deadline for entries is Friday, Jan. 4.