Last winter and spring, the Daily Herald's annual Fittest Loser Challenge centered on American heroes.
Four suburban veterans -- one each from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- lost weight and toned up under a weekly spotlight in the Herald's pages. Another 400 people, formed into 80 "At Work Challenge" teams, also dieted and exercised.
By the time the 12-week project ended in May, the participants had shed weight and gained a priceless gift -- an improvement in their health and sense of well-being.
Seven months later, it's time to start gearing up for the next Fittest Loser Challenge.
"This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Fittest Loser, and we couldn't be more pleased," said M. Eileen Brown, vice president of strategic marketing at the Daily Herald. "With the help and guidance of Push Fitness, contestants over the years have lost more than 2,500 pounds in total. More importantly, participants have learned how to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle."
As the contest is marking a special year in 2018, the Daily Herald is seeking participants who also are marking a milestone, whether it is a special birthday, wedding, becoming a new parent, newly retired, or some other special chapter in their lives.
If you want to apply to become one of five contestants for the title of Fittest Loser 10, visit events.dailyherald.com/fittest-loser/.
The Class of 2017
As the focus turns to 2018's contest, we tracked down the four contestants from 2017 to see how they are doing.
We found some backsliding, some pounds regained, and sad health and family problems. But these military veterans remain slimmer and fitter than when they started out.
One has gone on to lose a lot more weight. And they're all glad they went through the experience.
Tony Wiszowaty, 69, U.S. Marine Corps
Starting weight: 247
Final weight at end of contest: 192
Total weight lost by May: 55 pounds
Weight now: 214
"Being in the Fittest Loser Contest and working with Push Fitness was the best thing I did for my health since I was in Marine boot camp 48 years ago," said the eventual winner, Marine Corps vet Tony Wiszowaty. "I paid the price of losing weight and now I enjoy the benefits."
Wiszowaty's life has changed drastically since May. On June 30 he retired from his job in a real estate office. A week later, he and his wife, Bonnie, moved from Schaumburg to a suburb of the Quad Cities named Eldridge, Iowa.
"We moved to Iowa because we have a daughter there who has adopted two children with fetal alcohol syndrome disorder," Wiszowaty said. "The kids' mother drank during pregnancy and that has affected how their brains developed, which causes behavioral problems.
"Now the kids are ages 3 and age 5, and our daughter needs help caring for them. We were able to buy a house just two doors away from where our daughter lives."
When not busy with the kids, Tony and Bonnie also serve as caretakers for Bonnie's 70-year-old brother George, who suffers from heart and kidney problems. George has lived with them for some time. When Tony was interviewed, George was seriously ill in a hospital in Iowa City, and Tony and Bonnie were driving 70 miles each day to visit him.
Proving that when it rains, it pours, Bonnie also underwent shoulder surgery that makes it hard for her to help with the physical care. And Tony has a 100-year-old aunt who lives in an assisted-living facility back in suburban Chicago. The Wiszowatys drive from Iowa to visit her once a week.
Tony said he kept working out at Push Fitness for two months after the contest ended, and he stuck pretty well to the new dietary guidelines recommended by his Push trainer.
But with the move to Iowa and the caretaking pressures, "a lot of that went by the wayside."
He stopped exercising and backslid on his food choices. His weight has gone back up by 22 pounds, but is still 33 pounds below his weight when the 2017 contest started.
"I bought a slam ball and a jump rope and some weights, and I've started doing all the Push Fitness exercises I can remember. I no longer need to take any of my prescriptions for high blood pressure," Wiszowaty said. "I eat healthier (but I do go back to some of the old ways). I still exercise (but not nearly as much), my aches and pains and napping in the afternoon and evening have stopped. I have more energy. I look and feel better."
On top of that, he said, "I love Iowa. I love small towns. The people are incredibly friendly, very giving, very sharing."
And he is grateful for what he learned during the Fittest Loser.
"I can't begin to tell you all the lessons I learned and relearned by completing this challenge," Wiszowaty added. "Like whatever you put your mind to you can accomplish. Like the power of believing in yourself, in the system, in the coaching. The power of prayer, the power of visualization."
Penny Brown, 38, U.S. Navy
Starting weight: 227
Weight at contest end: 194
Weight lost by May: 33
Weight now: 206
The only female contestant, former Navy master of arms Penny Brown of Fox Lake remains some 20 pounds below her pre-contest weight.
But she finds herself fighting what she refers to as "a debilitating illness" and has done some backsliding in what she eats.
Brown spent 10 years working as a stay-at-home mom before taking a job as a lunch lady at her sons' school in Fox Lake. And when she saw the Fittest Loser Challenge advertised a year ago, she decided to get serious about getting fit.
She said the main reason was what her old way of life was doing to her two kids. For the Brown family, dinner too often meant a stop at a fast-food joint.
"I saw that my youngest son was 5 feet high and 140 pounds, and that was because I had terrible eating habits and never worked out."
After the 12 weeks of exercising and "eating healthy," her high blood pressure had gone back to normal. Her body fat had dropped from 38 percent to 32. She had lost 4.5 inches from her abdomen, 3 inches from her chest and an inch from her upper leg and upper arm.
Instead of three pushups, she now could do 11. Instead of 19 situps in a minute she now could do 28.
When the contest ended, Brown realized her home along the Chain O' Lakes was too far away to keep going to Schaumburg's Push Fitness for workouts.
"I did join the local gym, but now I only make it there about once a week due to work and the pain I'm in (from her illness)," she said.
"My eating habits, unfortunately, are about the same as before the challenge, but some days I try to follow the diet (recommended by her Push Fitness trainer)," she said. "I've gained 12 pounds since it ended."
However, her sons, now age 12 and 10, have gotten into a more active lifestyle thanks to sports, she said.
"I'm still a lunch lady and love my job. Both of my boys are in middle school now, so they don't attend my school anymore," she said. "They've both grown so much these last few months. My 12-year-old is 5 foot 5 and I'm 5 foot 8, so he's going to pass me soon. Football season ended recently and now he's on the wrestling team. And my 10-year-old is 5 foot 3, going on his third year of mixed martial arts and jujitsu."
The boys "keep me busy and happy," Brown said. "I feel very blessed to have had this experience with the Fittest Loser. I met some wonderful people and made lasting memories, and learned so much about myself."
James "J.D." DeBouver, 34, U.S. Army
Starting weight: 264
Weight at contest end: 222
Weight lost by May: 42
Weight now: 185
Total weight loss by December: 79
None of the 2017 contestants has endured as many heartbreaks and physical challenges as the contest's only combat veteran, James "J.D." DeBouver of Schaumburg.
But he alone has continued to lose weight after the contest ended. He alone has continued working, at least informally, with his Push Fitness trainer Steve Amsden. And though DeBouver finished in third place, by seven months after the contest ended, he has lost more total weight than any other contestant -- almost 80 pounds.
Since leaving the Army in 2007, DeBouver had gone to work as a safety inspector for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
But struggles with post-traumatic stress and depression caused by his experiences while guarding Army convoys in Iraq were followed by the chronic pain disease fibromyalgia.
And then came heartbreaks at home with his wife, Jennifer. In 2011, their first baby, a girl named Olivia Madilynn, was stillborn. A year later, their second baby, a son, was born with heart defects and died just six weeks later.
As depression and pain made him sometimes unable to leave the couch, J.D.'s weight shot up and down, to 280 pounds, then down to 205, then back up to 264.
The couple's third child, a daughter named Nina, was born six weeks premature a few months before the contest began and her lungs weren't fully developed.
DeBouver got off to a great start in the contest. Rigorously working out and eating right, he had lost more pounds than any other contestant seven weeks into the 12-week process. He shed 6 inches from his waist.
Then bad luck hit him again. He fell on ice, reinjuring a sore back. Pain left him largely unable to do the regular calisthenics at Push Fitness during the second half of the contest.
But he made up for that by doing Pilates under the tutelage of his mother, a professional Pilates instructor. By contest's end, he had lost 42 pounds.
And as he was introduced to the crowd at the final celebration in May, he held 10-month-old Nina above his head while tears of joy streamed down his face.
"I still exercise but have to be careful to do only low-impact things like Pilates and elliptical and free weights," he said. "No running or jumping. The types of food I eat are still in line with what they taught us to eat at Push Fitness, but I'm not as strict about how much I eat or how often.
"My little daughter is doing just wonderfully, and I'll be healthy enough to father her. Fittest Loser was a great experience."
Russell Page, 61, U.S. Air Force
Starting weight: 250
Weight at contest end: 196
Weight lost by May: 54
Weight now: 215
Russell Page, who lives on the shore of the Chain O' Lakes in Antioch, was inspired to join the Fittest Loser Challenge when he looked at a photo of himself holding up a trophy fish.
He was inspired not by the fish, but by the protruding human belly that was visible just behind that fish.
Assisted by his wife (and chief family cook) Diane, Page actually had started cleaning up his eating habits and walking five miles a day more than a year before the contest began. In 2015, he even walked the equivalent of a marathon along the streets around his home.
"Even before I saw the Fittest Loser ad I had lost 30 pounds," Page said. Between the beginning of the contest and its end, Page dropped another 54 pounds and lost 6 inches each from his waist, hips and chest. The triglyceride level of his blood plunged from 207 to 107. His "non-good" cholesterol went from 151 to 103. His percentage of body fat plunged from 40.3 to 27.7.
Page was the contest's only "career" military member (21 years as an electronics technician in the Air Force), followed by a career as a defense-industry marketing man, during which he gained 90 pounds while jetting constantly around the world. He now works as a part-time business teacher at Northern Illinois University and has started a consulting business.
Since May his life has continued much the same, but was sidetracked by an injury.
"I have some benches in my basement that I use for dumbbell exercises, and I do some of the aerobic exercises they taught us," he said. "I follow the columns in the Herald by Josh Steckler and I have signed up for the next Chicago Marathon.
"But a recurring knee injury came back to haunt me this summer. I had to go through therapy and that has kept me from running."
As for what he eats, Page said, "It's now a hybrid diet. We don't stick strictly to the diet Push taught us. I no longer banish starches. But I really consider what I eat and I don't eat as much as I did before. Thanks to the competition, I discovered I liked almonds."
Due to the lost weight, Russ had a lot of clothes that no longer fit.
"From my business years I had a closet full of suits and dress shirts. None of them fit anymore. So I took them all and donated them to a veterans home in North Chicago."
Between the knee injury slowing down his exercising and the diet relaxation, Page said, he has regained about 20 pounds, but still remains about 30 pounds below what he weighed when the contest started.
"I came away thinking this was a really positive experience -- the camaraderie between the contestants and working with the Push staff. It was just fun."