Wheeling's Danni Allen looks smashing after losing 121 pounds to win NBC's weight-loss competition reality show "The Biggest Loser."
She did it with plenty of self-motivation but also with the promise of financial reward, the bright lights of TV, and a bevy of support personnel, loyal friends and fans back home, as well as the motivation provided by uber-trainer Jillian Michaels.
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Four fellow suburban "Biggest Loser" alumni -- season 9 champ Michael Ventrella of Bartlett, season 8 contestant Julio Gomez of Algonquin, and season 7 at-home winner Jerry Hayes and his wife Estrella of Wheaton -- know all about the challenges Allen, a Mundelein High School grad, might face after the cameras go dark.
Allen is ready for this, telling reporters her father's health scare inspired her to start this journey and that her biggest change has been the confidence she gained during the process.
Her family and local trainers will have to take the place of Michaels, the flamboyant trainer who dumped ice water on Allen in one episode, then later declared the Mundelein High School graduate the hardest-working contestant.
Allen loves running and said if she can get a spot in October's Chicago Marathon, that would give her an incentive to keep working despite the time constraints of real life away from the "Biggest Loser" ranch.
"I think I'm a lot less scared because I have such a supportive family and gym trainers," she told the Daily Herald. "If I fall off the bandwagon, they're there to catch me. I am working to make home a safe zone."
It can be done. The Hayeses are within 10 pounds of the weight loss they showed off at their finale, and while neither Ventrella nor Gomez has kept his body exactly as it was at the end of their "Biggest Loser" seasons, both are still in far better shape than when they started.
Ventrella won "The Biggest Loser" in 2010 after dropping just over half his previous 526 pounds, a record for the show.
These days, though, he does not want to talk about pounds. Rather, he says, look at your body. He started with a 68-inch waist, was down to 38 by the end of the show, and now is at 40 or 42.
"Stop looking at the scale," he advises Danni Allen. "It's dangerous. That's ironic considering the emphasis put on weight loss on the show."
As a trainer and speaker, Ventrella remains a public figure, saying he can't even go shopping without being recognized. He believes his weight-loss experience makes him a better trainer, especially for people struggling with obesity.
"They have a mental block and are working on themselves to get healthy," he said. "It's different when you've been through it."
Gomez, the finance director for Lexus of Highland Park, participated in three triathlons since appearing on the show in 2009, but he said he has gained back about half of the 180 pounds he dropped from his 407-pound starting weight.
"I have days I am happy I was on the show and days I am not," he said. "But I'm at peace with it. I'm glad I'm no longer over 400 pounds and glad I can walk into the regular store and buy a shirt. It's great to get on my bike and lace up my gym shoes and run."
Like Ventrella, Gomez said he doesn't watch "The Biggest Loser" these days.
The Hayeses credit the show with saving their lives. Jerry went off several medications for blood pressure and diabetes, although he has added a few back after a few heart procedures.
"We used to take the grandkids to the park and watch them play," said Estrella. "Now we play with them."
The couple gives wellness presentations, practices regular exercise and are much more active -- even down to the events they choose on cruises. They lost a total of 260 pounds during the eight months of the show, most after getting kicked off and returning home.
Dr. Anthony Auriemma, medical director of Alexian Brothers Weight Loss Solutions in Bartlett and Schaumburg, says obesity is a chronic disease, one he still lists on patients' charts even after they have lost weight.
One step Alexian Brothers uses to help patients maintain their weight loss is accountability -- regular check-ins with someone the client will talk with even when they experience backsliding.
Long-term weight loss also requires changing diet, dealing with emotional issues, exercising regularly and adopting a healthy lifestyle, Auriemma said.
Despite the many scenes of grueling workouts on "The Biggest Loser," it's hard for most people to find time to make exercise alone an effective way of losing weight, he said. For example, one would have to walk for more than 30 miles to burn a pound's worth of calories, he said.
Gomez agrees with Auriemma that time is an issue, and while he's sometimes disappointed that he's regained much of his weight, "ultimately you come to grips with yourself and your situation and weight and find a way to make it manageable based on real life."
At ages 63 and 64, the Hayeses were the oldest contestants on the show. Jerry Hayes collapsed during the show's first workout and was rushed to the hospital. But doctors determined the cause was dehydration, not a heart condition, and he was allowed to continue.
"When Jerry went down, there was no question in my mind that we were in the right place at the right time," said Estrella Hayes. "We are always asked whether we would have actually crossed that line and changed our lifestyles without the show. I don't know. But we tell people if we can do it you surely can -- maybe not as quickly."
Ventrella, who has a home in Bartlett and also spends considerable time with his parents in Florida, still speaks enthusiastically about how the show changed his life.
"The only downside I would have to say is some people feel the show is their only hope," he said. "You don't need the show to save your life."
He believes one reason he was selected from the thousands who applied for the show was his determination to lose weight with or without cameras on him. That determination came after he reached rock bottom after the deaths of his grandfather and a young woman who was his best friend.
"All this bad stuff happening, I looked at as empowering me to do something about it, to make up for the years that she lost," he said of his friend's death.
Motivation and education are the keys to turning around a lifestyle, said Ventrella, and he believes in celebrating small successes.
"Any weight loss is a great weight loss," he said, "whether a pound or 15. Once you spark that fire, you keep blowing on it, it's addictive."