Out of more than 200 applicants, five Daily Herald readers emerged as finalists in the 2014 Fittest Loser Challenge. They are Chris Kalamatas of Lake in the Hills; Cheryl Seibert of Joliet; John Bohanek of South Elgin; Allie Monroe of Schaumburg; and Tim Lange of Algonquin.
Like millions of Americans, these five contestants have tried it all -- dieting on their own; formal weight loss programs; and trying to squeeze in a little exercise here and there. But nothing has really stuck. They've lost a few pounds here, just to regain it -- and some -- there. Now, as part of the Fittest Loser Challenge, which is sponsored by the Daily Herald and Push Fitness in Schaumburg, they are excited about making future plans for what they expect will be new bodies and new lives in the weeks to come.
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Over the next 12 weeks, contestants will be monitored by physicians, put on a specific nutrition plan and will work one-on-one with Push Fitness personal trainers three times a week. Moreover, they will attend weekly boot camp sessions and record their weight, as the ultimate goal of the program is to find out who will lose the most weight, based on percentages.
The trainers are pumped.
"When I look at this group, I'm excited about my expectations and the trainers' expectations," said Push Fitness owner and personal trainer Joshua Steckler. "When we all met, contestants were talking to one another. There were no bad attitudes. There was a lot of energy and good vibes. Everyone seemed like a good fit, and the trainers are ready to get it going. They're excited to get it all started."
The participants are ecstatic and optimistic.
Chris Kalamatas, 63, of Lake in the Hills is a retired Chicago Public Schools principal. Kalamatas says he used to be a strong athlete, taught PE, coached school teams and was fairly athletic. But with time, he slowed down, almost to a standstill.
"I applied to the Fittest Loser contest with the hope of getting the opportunity to make lifestyle changes as I haven't been able to do it on my own these past several years," said Kalamatas, the oldest person in the competition this year. "I was shocked when I found out I had been selected."
At first, his wife says he made her keep his selection a secret from their adult children.
"I have five loving kids, and they are always on me to get into better shape," Kalamatas said, laughing.
Now, he is looking forward to the day when he will be able to reduce or eliminate his blood pressure meds that he has taken for 15 years, reduce his cholesterol levels and move away from his prediabetic state.
"I believe I can eliminate all three by learning to eat better and lose weight," he said. "Right now, I cannot run up and down a basketball court or around the bases on a softball field without feeling sheer exhaustion. I'd like to improve my stamina for running and playing active sports."
Learning that she had been selected for the Fittest Loser Challenge made Cheryl Seibert of Joliet feel like she had hit the jackpot.
"I always told my husband if we ever won the lottery the first thing I would do would be to hire a personal trainer," said Seibert, a firefighter and paramedic with the Schaumburg Fire Department. "When I found out that I had been selected, I did the happy dance. I felt like I won the lottery in a different way!"
Seibert, who works in a mostly male field, says she thrives on competition. She says she knew the competition of the challenge would motivate her to want to reach her weight-loss goals. For the past few years, she and her firefighter husband have spent their time juggling busy careers, caring for their 3-year-old twins and spending less time focusing on their health.
Seibert knew it was time to take better care of herself.
"Being a firefighter and paramedic I need to get back in shape because our job is physically demanding," she says. "When I turned 40, I went to the doctor for a checkup, and although I am pretty healthy, she asked me what I was going to do to lose weight. Now, I look forward to being less fatigued when fulfilling my duties on the job. I am really looking forward to being in pictures with my kids instead of always behind the camera."
John Bohanek of South Elgin remembers the freedom he experienced when he was slimmer and pines for those days now when he finds it difficult to even climb a flight of stairs without being out of breath.
"I was fit in high school and very active through my 20s and 30s. My job was active and mobile back then, and I was able to maintain my weight," said Bohanek, who is now 46 and works for a grocery store chain. "But over the past 15 years, I have gained 10 to 15 pounds a year. I hid my weight gain by buying bigger clothes so my pants never looked tight. My weight has prevented me from doing some activities like going horseback riding, getting on amusement park rides and even fitting into my cars. I thought, 'I can't outgrow my car or my scale as it only goes to 380.' "
There were also health concerns, like his escalating blood pressure and cholesterol numbers that concerned him.
While he works to mentally prepare for the exercise that lies ahead in the challenge, it's the changes to his diet that may be the hardest to stomach.
"In the past, I made really bad food choices," said Bohanek, who is single. "My diet consisted of high-fat, high-calorie food that tasted good but offered little nutrition, and my hydration consisted mostly of soda."
In fact, Bohanek says giving up what he calls the "4 Bs" may be his toughest challenge ever. "I struggle with the 4 Bs," he quips, "which are bacon, butter, buffets and bread."
Nevertheless, he is looking to shed the weight and his weighty nickname of "Big John."
Allie Monroe of Schaumburg is the youngest person in the competition this year. She comes from an active family that has always put good health at the forefront.
Her dad is a scout for the Chicago White Sox, her brother will attend training with the Chicago White Sox this spring, and her mother is the fitness manager at Prairie Stone Sports and Wellness Center in Hoffman Estates.
Yet, the 28-year-old actuary, who was once very active and involved in sports herself, has settled into a lifestyle that is decidedly more sedentary. She has tried to lose weight on her own but with limited success. Today, she dreams of the day when weight is no longer an issue, and the active person she is inside will once again match her outside.
"I applied to this competition because I am finally done with being the weight that I am," said Monroe. "This time I know that I can keep it off and this type of jump-start would really help. I realized that I will be 30 in about a year, and I don't want to be where I am now."
Already, she has suffered a few health setbacks.
"About two years ago, I was in the hospital for a pulmonary embolism partly because of my weight, and I don't want to be in that position again," she said. "I also have high cholesterol and triglycerides. I'm hoping that those numbers will decrease by the end of the competition."
Monroe sees the challenge as an opportunity to make permanent changes to her lifestyle. "I want [fitness] to be a part of my every day routine and something that becomes a little easier each day," she added.
Vanity also plays a not-so-tiny role.
"I am also looking forward to never having to shop at a plus-size clothing store again," said Monroe, "and be able to have many options of where I can shop."
Tim Lange, 57, of Algonquin is an occupational therapist. For years, he has cheered on others as he helped them to reach their goals. Now, he is ready to reach his.
Although still active enough to participate in some major sporting events, including three Chicago marathons, Lange says he knew he needed to take back the reins of his health when his blood pressure levels continued to rise. He was also tired of the not-so-funny pudgy jokes that were becoming more commonplace at work. The Challenge, he said, offered him a way to take back his life.
"Our lives tend to get into a comfortable routine, and I needed to do something to shake it up a little," said Lange about what prompted him to apply for the competition.
Just a few days into the challenge, and he has already begun to learn about how better health can benefit him.
"After seeing the weight loss doctor, I found out that I did indeed have the onset of early diabetes and borderline high cholesterol," he said. "Then, add in my weight, which is in the obese range … So, my goal is to get all these numbers in the normal zone."
The Challenge won't be easy; Lange and the other four contestants know that. But like the others, he is ready to give it his all.
"By eating the right foods, exercising and getting the right hours of sleep, those are the three things that we can all do for ourselves if we want it," Lange said. "Already, I have set a new goal for myself: to complete a triathlon at the end of summer."