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Article updated: 5/6/2013 10:57 AM

Fittest Loser contestants look ahead to new lifestyles


There wasn't much blood. But there were buckets of sweat, some tears and a fair amount of initial protest from their aching bodies.

But in the end, the six contestants of the Daily Herald's 2013 Fittest Loser competition dropped a combined total of 266 pounds. In the past three months, they melted away their body weight through rigorous exercise routines and by following a balanced diet. They sacrificed their favorite junk foods for broccoli and surrendered their inhibitions at "boot camp."

It wasn't easy. The journey was demanding and temptation taunted them daily, but these six weight-loss champions showed their community that determination and hard work produces results.

When the winner of the competition was announced on May 1, each of the contestants had already undergone a life-changing transformation -- both physical and mental.

"This is a lifelong thing for me," says Marianne Costales-Roman, of Carol Stream, who claimed the top spot in the competition after losing 60 pounds. "And this is just the beginning."

To push them in the right direction, each contestant was paired with a personal trainer from contest sponsor Push Fitness in Schaumburg. Joshua Steckler, who owns Push Fitness, says that contestants worked out with their trainers at least three times a week and attended a group workout camp on the weekends -- in addition to exercising on their own.

"They've gone through some pretty drastic changes in the past three months," Steckler says.

In addition to trainers, the contestants received medical monitoring and consultations from Dr. Anthony Auriemma, medical director of Alexian Brothers Weight Loss Solutions, another co-sponsor of the event.

Even though the contest has ended, the contestants say that they plan to stick with their newfound health and fitness habits. Their 12-week journey to better health has been challenging, but they're not complaining -- except about having to buy a new wardrobe in smaller sizes.

Here's a recap of each of the six contestants' journeys, in the order they finished.

Marianne Costales-Roman

She never dreamed of losing this much weight. Carol Stream resident Marianne Costales-Roman shed a total of 60 pounds, or 27 percent of her total body weight, and set the weight-loss record for the five-year history of the event.

When she first signed up for the challenge, her goal was to lose around 20 pounds. Having been diagnosed a prediabetic with high blood pressure, she worried about her health. A year earlier, her father suffered a fatal heart attack.

"I didn't want to do the same, so I tried out (for the Fittest Loser)," says Costales-Roman, who has two daughters and a husband at home.

Prior to becoming a contestant, the 38-year-old high school social worker convinced herself that she didn't have time to lead a healthy lifestyle. Between family obligations, her full-time job at Glen Oaks Therapeutic Day School and a part-time job at Target, there was no time for exercise and making healthy meals -- or so she told herself. But the past 12 weeks have made her come to a new realization.

"I learned that no matter what, I can put my mind to anything and I can accomplish my goal," she says.

That's not to say that she didn't face obstacles. In fact, one of her most annoying obstacles came in the shape of a tortilla. Being Hispanic, those delicious tortilla-based dishes with gooey cheese and succulent meats haunted her daily. But she fought the temptation and won.

Her trainer, Tony Rinehart, says that she is one of the hardest-working contestants he's ever trained. He's seen her work her way from 222 pounds down to 162 pounds.

"Lots of blood, sweat and tears," Costales-Roman says. "But it was only internal bleeding. I bruised a lot."

In the end, it was worth it. Because her health improved, it's no longer necessary for her to take some of the blood pressure medication she was previously taking. Plus, she's going to look good at her upcoming 20th high school reunion in June.

Joe Gundling

Out of all the contestants, Joe Gundling probably put up the most resistance to change in the beginning. The 18-year-old didn't want to give up Taco Bell and playing video games late at night.

"He was very lazy. He did not want to wake up or do anything," says his trainer, Tony Figueroa.

But the trainer admits that Gundling has come a long way. In fact, the Hanover Park teenager placed as runner-up in the competition. He was the youngest competitor in five years and lost 56 pounds, or 21.2 percent of his body weight.

In the beginning, his reason to join the contest was to look good for his girlfriend at her senior prom.

"I was not active before that. So the first three weeks were a shock to my system," he says.

But as time passed, Gundling started to adopt his new lifestyle. Now weighing 208 pounds, he plans to keep it up in hopes of dropping another 30 pounds.

"You are your own biggest enemy," he says. "As long as you don't tell yourself you can't do it, you can do anything."

Megan McCarthy-Cook

When Megan McCarthy-Cook woke up in the morning, she'd make her way to Dunkin' Donuts where she'd order a cup of coffee and two of her favorite cream-filled goodies. It was a daily ritual. But that was before she joined the Fittest Loser Challenge.

"When we first started training together, she could hardly walk on the treadmill," says her trainer, Steve Amsden.

After 12 weeks of personal training sessions and a doughnut-free diet, McCarthy-Cook can run for almost a mile without stopping. The Hoffman Estates woman lost 50 pounds, or 17.7 percent of her body weight.

A partial motivator for McCarthy-Cook to join the contest was her mother, who is battling lung cancer and wants to see her daughter in better health. At 33, McCarthy-Cook was diagnosed as a prediabetic and she suffered from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and her triglycerides were twice as high as they should have been.

Today, she's no longer in the prediabetic stage, her blood pressure is under control and her triglycerides have dropped significantly. She plans to continue her newly adopted healthy lifestyle.

"It's hard in the beginning. But if you give yourself time, you will get there," says McCarthy-Cook, a mother of two. "I learned not to give up."

Mike Paulo

They made fun of him for drinking "coconut water," but Mike Paulo didn't care. He knew that his water, which he laced with coconut oil to give it taste, would help him melt off the pounds.

A former athlete and now the head softball coach at Elmhurst College, Paulo took the Fittest Loser Challenge seriously. He started the competition at nearly 300 pounds and had to take three medications to control his high blood pressure.

"He was extremely willing to do whatever I asked him to do," says his trainer, Brodie Medlock. "He did an awesome job."

The 59-year-old Woodridge man was the oldest competitor among this year's Fittest Losers. But he lost 41 pounds, or 13.9 percent of his body weight. He also got his blood pressure under better control and stopped taking some of his medication.

"I feel much stronger," says Paulo, a father of four. "It's never too late to make changes to your lifestyle."

Though it's been tough, he's learned to change his habits and plans to continue with his training. Initially, he wanted to reach his goal of 225 pounds, which he weighed when he got married 31 years ago.

That means he'll have to continue eliminating his favorite pasta dishes from his diet -- and keep drinking the "coconut water."

Greg Moehrlin

Like many people, Greg Moehrlin had excuses for why he didn't live a healthier lifestyle. His teaching job at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights kept him busy during the day. The evenings were dedicated to his wife and two children.

"I spent too much time making excuses," he says.

Three years ago, he was diagnosed with heart arrhythmia that required a pacemaker. When he heard about the Fittest Loser competition, he decided to do it for his health -- and he worked hard.

"He'd come into the gym at 5 a.m. and he's the only person that actually asked to put on a 40-pound vest (during his workout)," says his trainer, Wade Merrill.

The 39-year-old St. Charles man ended up losing 37 pounds, or 15.1 percent of his body weight.

"I now have more energy for my family and my kids," Moehrlin says. "I feel great. And I'm fitting into pants that I'd never thought I'd fit in."

He believes that the secret to living a healthy lifestyle involves finding an enjoyable activity and avoiding foods that come in a "bag or a box."

Karen Castillo

Running up and down nine flights of stairs while wearing a 20-pound weight wasn't an easy task. Nor did Karen Castillo enjoy giving up Portillo's chocolate cake. But she was sick of being fat. Her will and determination kept her going.

"Overall, it was overwhelming," she says. "But it was very positive. Everyone was very supportive."

At 37, the Carpentersville woman hadn't yet felt the risk factors associated with being overweight. But she wanted to be able to walk up stairs without getting winded and run a mile on the treadmill without slowing it down to walk mode.

The past few weeks have been a life-changing experience. Her trainer, Michelle Amsden, says that Castillo "never once complained."

In the end, Castillo lost 22 pounds, or 10.7 percent of her body weight.

"The hardest thing was to make time to plan my meals," she says.

But she's learned to make improvements to her eating habits and looks forward to continuing losing weight and building her strength.

Marianne Costales-Roman, 38, Carol Stream

Starting weight: 222

Current weight: 162

Total weight loss: 60 pounds, 27 percent

Joe Gundling, 18, Hanover Park

Starting weight: 264

Current weight: 208

Total weight loss: 56 pounds, 21.2 percent

Megan McCarthy-Cook, 33, Hoffman Estates

Starting weight: 282

Current weight: 232

Total weight loss: 50 pounds, 17.7 percent

Greg Moehrlin, 39, St. Charles

Starting weight: 245

Current weight: 208

Total weight loss: 37 pounds, 15.1 percent

Mike Paulo, 59, Woodridge

Starting weight: 294

Current weight: 253

Total weight loss: 41 pounds, 13.9 percent

Karen Castillo, 37, Carpentersville

Starting weight: 206

Current weight: 184

Total weight loss: 22 pounds, 10.7 percent

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