Just a week before the Fittest Loser finale, 60-year-old Air Force veteran Russell Page of Antioch looked like a shoo-in to win the weight-loss competition.

But when the winner was announced to a crowd of 350 at the finale celebration in Schaumburg Tuesday, May 9, it turned out to be … Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg.

So, how did Wiszowaty, the oldest participant at 69, pull out the surprise win?

The key to his victory, the exuberant and extroverted Marine-turned-Realtor said, was a "never quit" attitude inspired by the Marines, Michael Jordan and his son.

A large gap

Russell Page of Antioch. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

At the second-to-last weigh-in, Page had lost five more pounds than Wiszowaty.

Both had started at virtually the same weight. (The winner is based on the percentage of original weight lost, not on the number of pounds.)

Speculation was that Page was likely to lose more weight than the others in the final week. This was based on the fact nobody except Page had lost more than seven pounds in a single week.

So, on paper, it appeared Page's lead was insurmountable … everybody perhaps thought that, except Wiszowaty.

The Marine veteran would always cheer on every one of his competitors' weigh-in achievements and, like the others, said every contestant "really wins by losing" pounds and becoming healthier. But inside Wiszowaty deeply wanted to "win this for the Marine Corps" and once again prove that even though a grade-school teacher once told his parents that he seemed to be mentally slow, in reality he is perfectly normal and can accomplish anything that anybody else can.

A family tradition

Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

So what did Wiszowaty do during those final seven days to turn the tide?

He switched into overdrive. And he thought about his son and about Michael Jordan.

During one key game in the Chicago Bulls' "double-threepeat" playoffs, Wiszowaty explained, the Bulls were losing with 0.3 seconds to go when Jordan hit a buzzer-beating shot to win the game.

"My son was about 5 years old when we were watching that on TV," Wiszowaty said. "I looked at him and I said, 'So when should we quit?' And we both said, 'Never!'"

His son is now 33. "But ever since that time, when anybody in sports does a Hail Mary pass or a buzzer-beating basket or a walk-off home run, he and I call each other and say to each other, 'When do you quit? Never!' So in this contest I couldn't face my son if I gave up and just let Russ win despite that big lead," he said.

So, he redoubled his efforts.

"I worked my buns off that last week and especially the last day. The day before the last weigh-in I began by running six miles in the morning on Harper College's track. Then I worked out for an hour at Push Fitness," he said. "Then I walked and ran -- more walked than ran -- 13 miles, a half-marathon. Then I went for a swim in the evening."

For inspiration, back in his real estate office Wiszowaty put a trophy on the shelf with a sign "Fittest Loser Champion" on it.

A friendly rivalry

Wiszowaty sensed early on that Page would be his toughest rival.

"When I heard Russ was running three miles a day, I said, 'I need to start running. I need to start swimming.' Every time I was running and someone passed me, I'd say, 'That's Russ' and I'd go fast enough to pass them."

A bit competitive himself, Page said he avoided drinking water during his final workout to avoid extra weight. As Push Fitness owner Josh Steckler prepared to weigh him in, Page jokingly told him, "If I pass out, put me on that scale before you make me swallow any water.'"

To preserve suspense, the final weights were recorded with each contestant facing away from the scale and the results were not revealed until the winner was announced at the finale celebration in Chandler's Ballroom at the Schaumburg Golf Club.

The final numbers

When Daily Herald Vice President M. Eileen Brown announced the final totals Tuesday, Page had lost another seven pounds in the final week, for a total loss of 54 pounds, or 21.6 percent of his original weight.

But in that same week Wiszowaty had lost 13 pounds -- almost twice as much as anybody had lost in a single week up to then. That brought his total loss to 55 pounds, or 22.3 percent of his original weight.

And it made him the 2017 winner by the closest margin in the Fittest Loser Challenge's nine-year history.

Fighting injuries

James "J.D." DeBouver of Schaumburg Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

Army veteran James "J.D." DeBouver, 33, of Schaumburg, lost a total of 42 pounds, or 15.9 percent of his starting weight.

DeBouver had been an early leader in the competition. For the first seven of the 12 weeks, he had led the others in weight loss. But in the last month, he had been hindered by back injuries.

He stopped coming to weekly workouts at Push Fitness and did modified exercises during boot camps, though he continued to work out under the guidance of his mother at the Pilates training facility she operates in Schaumburg.

He lost four pounds during the final week and said that on top of the back pain, he suffered from a recurrence of what he said were "stomach problems I've had since I was in Iraq."

He went to a Veterans Affairs hospital emergency room and "they said to eat more fiber. I said I'm already drinking smoothies twice a day and those are pure vegetables."

Not stopping

Penny Brown of Fox Lake Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

The contest's only female, 37-year-old Navy veteran Penny Brown of Fox Lake, lost a total of 33 pounds, or 14.5 percent of her starting weight. That included one pound during the last week.

"I worked out every day this week and dieted very strictly, but I still lost only one pound," the school cafeteria worker and mother of two said. "I didn't make my goal, which was to lose 40 pounds. But I feel like a different person. I feel like I lost half of myself."

And her journey toward better health is not over, Brown said.

"I'm not stopping," she said. "I can't keep coming to Push Fitness because it's so far from Fox Lake, but I'm going to start classes at a gym near my house."

After their final weigh-ins, the contestants had their first test of whether they would continue to apply what they learned during the Fittest Loser Challenge or jump back into eating whatever they wanted.

The night after the final weigh-in, Wiszowaty and his wife had gone to a favorite restaurant for the first time in months and he considered ordering fried chicken. But when he looked at its skin and thought about all the fat in it, he decided, "I can't do that. I'll have the house salad, no croutons and no cheese."

DeBouver prepared a Southwestern baked sweet potato and ate it at dinnertime that same night, despite the Push Fitness eating plan's orders to eat no starches after midday.

Page was at his son's wedding the Saturday before the finale and said, "I kind of behaved myself, but I did do some toasts and drank some 18-year-old scotch" despite the eating plan's ban on alcohol.

Brown said she was "happy to start eating oatmeal again."

So, it looks as if the contestants will be making some modifications to the strict eating and workout regimens of the competition as they move back into "real life" again. But, they are determined to carry the healthy lifestyle lessons they learned forward.

"Tony was a tough competitor," Page said. "But we all win. Tony was able to stop taking three blood pressure medicines. I feel great and I'm gonna continue to feel great."