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updated: 4/8/2013 8:18 AM

Support network gives contestants' a boost

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  • Preparing healthy meals is a family affair for Mike Paulos.

      Preparing healthy meals is a family affair for Mike Paulos.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Joe Gundling's grandma has been a supporter from the beginning, encouraging him to enter the Fittest Loser Challenge earlier this year.

      Joe Gundling's grandma has been a supporter from the beginning, encouraging him to enter the Fittest Loser Challenge earlier this year.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Megan McCarthy-Cook is excited to spend time at the gym with her husband, Jeremy, and two daughters.

      Megan McCarthy-Cook is excited to spend time at the gym with her husband, Jeremy, and two daughters.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Gerry Alger

For weeks now we've been talking to the contestants about the Fittest Loser Challenge. We've heard about their love/hate relationship with a variety of foods, the stress they face balancing work, diet, exercise and family and we know their trainers are tough. The six contestants have been the center of attention. And they'll continue to be until the winner is announced May 1.

But this week we're turning the tables and instead of talking about themselves, we asked them to talk about the people behind the scenes. These are the unsung heroes of everyone's weight-loss endeavor. They include husbands, wives, children, parents, grandparents, friends, co-workers, Facebook followers and newspaper readers.

Mike Paulo: His wife and four daughters all pitch in to prepare meals, even making sure he has a healthy dinner waiting when he gets home late from work. They're not only making healthier food choices right along with him, they're working out alongside him as well.

"It motivates me to exercise along with my daughters in our family room, demonstrating various squat positions, challenging me to pushup and sit-up competitions," Paulo says. "In the past, we'd eat snacks."

Friends and family have been amused by his newfound fascination with avocados.

"They remind me that I disliked eating them before," he says. "Now I talk about eating them all the time. They're a staple food for me. I go on and on about the benefits of coconut oil, green smoothies and sweet potatoes."

Paulo's support team is quick to recognize the changes they're seeing, often before he notices.

"On Easter Sunday, I came downstairs dressed for church in a blue blazer," he recalls. "One of my daughters sent me right back upstairs to change. She said I looked like I was drowning in my jacket.

"It felt great to realize she was right."

Joe Gundling: Joe Gundling has lost nearly 40 pounds and he's quick to point out that he could not have gotten this far without the support of his entire family. He's especially appreciative of his girlfriend, Jen, for joining him in making healthier food choices and showing up at the gym so they can work out together.

"Jen encourages me to keep pushing and not to give up," he says.

And the 18-year-old has another workout partner, his grandma.

"My grandparents have encouraged me from day one," Gundling says. "My grandma meets me at the gym pretty often and our meals together are 600 times healthier than they were before the competition."

Megan McCarthy-Cook: There are lots of names on Megan McCarthy-Cook's list of people she appreciates, but none more than her husband, Jeremy. At the start of the competition they joined the gym together and that's where you'll find the couple on their date nights.

"Sometimes when Jeremy's done working out before me, he'll just stand next to me while I'm on the treadmill encouraging me to keep going, not to stop, not to give up," McCarthy-Cook says.

"I sometimes get embarrassed when he does it, but he just tells me to suck it up, forget about what other people are thinking, because he's helping me. It took me awhile to believe him, but now I don't care when he does it, because it does help."

Social media has proved a great source of motivation for the 33-year-old mother of two girls.

"I've been posting all the articles on my Facebook page," she says. "Hearing all the love and support that I'm getting keeps me motivated. I'm getting comments from friends I haven't seen or talked to in years. They all know how long I've been struggling with a weight problem."

McCarthy-Cook's mom was the main reason she decided to apply for the competition and her encouragement continues to be a huge part of her motivation, but her dad is also solidly in her corner.

"Hearing it (encouragement) from my dad means the world to me," she says. "He has helped me so much, not only by being supportive, but also by watching my daughters while I work out during the week."

Karen Castillo: Her support comes from a variety of sources. Her parents are not only encouraging, offering regular compliments, they're also helping in very practical ways. They shop for her groceries and on her busy days, they watch the three rescue dogs Castillo has adopted.

"For my birthday, I received gift cards to Whole Foods," says the now-37-year-old. "My stepdad, Tom, and I like to shop for fresh fish and have tried lots of healthy ways to prepare it."

With friends scattered across the country, Castillo has been keeping them in the loop via Facebook and her personal blog.

"My friends Evan, Poppy and Taylor have all supported me by texting, calling or messaging their well-wishes," she says. "They're a very active family and I plan to join them for some adventures soon."

Castillo, who manages a retail store at Deer Park Town Center, was surprised recently by a visit from Regina Verdico, the shopping center's marketing director. "She stopped by the store and exclaimed that I was 'tiny' and said she could definitely see a difference in my body."

Greg Moehrlin: Everywhere Greg Moehrlin turns, he finds support.

"At home, my wife has altered the way she cooks to include lean protein and vegetables at every meal," he says. "Being Italian, it's been hard for her to cut out pasta and breads, but we've adapted. She even found a recipe for 'mashed potatoes' made with cooked cauliflower, smashed with olive oil and garlic."

Moehrlin's two little girls are quick to express their pride when he reports his weight loss every Saturday. As is his dad, who he calls with a weight update each week on the way home from boot camp.

"My dad is supportive and encouraging, no matter how the weigh-in went," Moehrlin says of his 77-year-old father. "He's still very active and we kayak together regularly. I want to be in that kind of shape when I'm his age."

Walking the halls at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights where the 39-year-old science teacher works, he often hears how his Fittest Loser journey is inspiring others.

"That makes me feel good and it motivates me to reach my goals," Moehrlin says.

Marianne Costales-Roman: Marianne Costales-Roman is a very busy woman, juggling both full- and part-time jobs, caring for her mother and brother along with her husband and two daughters, all while throwing herself into an intense fitness regimen. With all that's on her plate, it's not surprising that she's often torn between the needs of those around her and taking care of herself.

"My older daughter, Janea, misses the old Marianne," Costales-Roman says. "My younger daughter, Selena, is excited about being able to put her arms around me.

"When Janea was struggling to let me go workout, I heard Selena say, "Go mommy and work out!"

The busy mom recounts the many days, nights and weekends she's invested in working out and feeling guilty because she's not there for her family.

"But then I hear Tony's voice telling me I need to take care of myself so I can be there for my family," Costales-Roman says of her trainer Tony Rinehart.

Her husband, Ramiro, keeps her honest and accountable for her food and water intake. Co-workers often compliment her weight loss and ask about her exercise routine and gluten-free diet. Her in-laws are amazed at what she's accomplished so far. In fact, one of her sisters-in-law has even hired a personal trainer and embarked on her own weight-loss journey.

"I feel blessed to have this opportunity," Costales-Roman says. "Despite all the craziness in my life, I have made this competition a part of my life."

Karen Castillo, 37, Carpentersville

Starting weight: 206

Current weight: 192

Weight lost this week: 2 pounds

Total weight loss: 14 pounds, 6.7 percent

Marianne Costales-Roman, 37, Carol Stream

Starting weight: 222

Current weight: 189

Weight lost this week: 2 pounds

Total weight loss: 33 pounds, 14.8 percent

Joe Gundling, 18, Hanover Park

Starting weight: 264

Current weight: 226

Weight lost this week: 7 pounds

Total weight loss: 38 pounds, 14.3 percent

Megan McCarthy-Cook, 33, Hoffman Estates

Starting weight: 282

Current weight: 249

Weight lost this week: 4 pounds

Total weight loss: 33 pounds, 11.7 percent

Greg Moehrlin, 39, St. Charles

Starting weight: 245

Current weight: 216

Weight lost this week: 3 pounds

Total weight loss: 29 pounds, 11.8 percent

Mike Paulo, 59, Woodridge

Starting weight: 294

Current weight: 266

Weight lost this week: 1 pound

Total weight loss: 28 pounds, 9.5 percent

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