Meet the four veterans who will take on 2017 Fittest Loser Challenge

  • Fittest Loser contestants are James DeBouver of Schaumburg, Army; Russ Page of Antioch, Air Force; Penny Brown of Fox Lake, Navy; and Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg, Marine. Push Fitness trainers behind the contestants are Steve Amsden, Joshua Steckler, Patrick Stille and Michelle Jeeninga.

      Fittest Loser contestants are James DeBouver of Schaumburg, Army; Russ Page of Antioch, Air Force; Penny Brown of Fox Lake, Navy; and Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg, Marine. Push Fitness trainers behind the contestants are Steve Amsden, Joshua Steckler, Patrick Stille and Michelle Jeeninga. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Dave Gathman
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 2/26/2017 10:41 AM

A grandfather wants to play with his granddaughter atop a mountain without losing his breath.

A veteran hopes to assuage the pains that wrack both his body and his mind since the Iraq War.


A mom wants to have the energy to keep up with her husband and kids.

And a retiree wants to change to a healthier lifestyle.

The four contestants for the 2017 Fittest Loser Challenge each hope the coming sacrifices and effort will get them back to the trim and fit condition they were in when a recruiter convinced them to devote several years of their youth to serving their country.

This year's fitness and weight-loss contest brings together four veterans -- two in their 30s, two in their 60s -- for three months of workouts and nutritional counseling from trainers at Push Fitness of Schaumburg.

The contestant who drops his or her weight by the biggest percentage will be crowned the 2017 Fittest Loser at a final celebration on May 9.

Meet the four contestants -- each representing a different branch of the Armed Services:

James 'J.D.' DeBouver

U.S. Army

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Few of the 40 contestants who applied to get into the contest have endured as many heartbreaks and challenges in life as Army veteran James "J.D." DeBouver, 33, of Schaumburg.

Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver served in the Army.
  Fittest Loser contestant James DeBouver served in the Army. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Graduating from Conant High School in Hoffman Estates in 2002, he attended college for three semesters, but says "that really wasn't for me at the time. I was too rambunctious. I made good grades but was the class clown."

So in 2004 he joined the Army. He trained as a forward observer for the artillery. But when he was deployed to battle-torn Iraq in 2005-2006, he was reassigned provide security for convoys as they risked ambush at any moment by either improvised explosive devices or human fighters carrying guns and rockets.


DeBouver talks about seeing combat during those convoys: "More than I care to remember," he says slowly and seriously. "More than I want to remember. I struggle with that stuff every day."

Leaving the Army in 2007, he worked as a recruiter and financial aid adviser for DeVry University, then four years as a technician for Comcast. "I was a cable guy," he said.

After injuring his back on the job, he worked for the Defense Contracting Management Agency, working at the same Northrop Grumman plant in Rolling Meadows where contestant Russell Page was based.

And since 2013 he has worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), "making sure everyone goes home with their fingers and toes at the end of the shift" at construction sites and investigating accidents.

DeBouver and his wife, Jennifer, faced heartbreak at home. In 2011 their daughter was stillborn.

"My wife got pregnant again and our son was born on Sept. 10, 2012," DeBouver said. "He was brought to Lurie Children's Hospital and that's where he spent the six weeks of his short life. He died Oct. 23."

Needless to say, their third pregnancy, with a daughter named Nina, was nerve-wracking. And she was born six weeks premature. But now, he said, she is seven months old and has some breathing issues, but seems safe.

Inside DeBouver, meanwhile, the war experiences had left him with PTSD and bouts of depression.

When hit by such bouts, he said, "I eat and just don't have the strength of will to get up off the couch. You see no reason to do anything."

His weight followed a pattern parallel to his depression. His weight ballooned at one point to 280, went back down to 205 after he cut all animal products from his diet, then shot up yet again to 263.

Making things even worse, DeBouver has developed fibromyalgia. "I struggle with whole-body pain every day, and mobility issues," he said.

He hopes the 12 weeks of training and eating changes will reduce and stabilize his weight, allowing him to play a full role in raising his baby daughter.

He and his wife also are active with Mended Little Hearts, a nationwide organization that helps parents of children born with heart defects.

"When DeBouver showed up for the contest's first Saturday-morning "boot camp," he was wearing a T-shirt that read "Dear Olivia Madilynn" -- the name of his stillborn daughter.

Tony Wiszowaty

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve

Tony Wiszowaty, 68, of Schaumburg, wants to shape up because he loves the Marine Corps. And because he wants to have enough breath to play with his granddaughter in the mountains of Ecuador. And because of the word "retarded."

Fittest Loser contestant Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg served in the Marines.
  Fittest Loser contestant Tony Wiszowaty of Schaumburg served in the Marines. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

When Wiszowaty was in third grade in Chicago, he says, his teacher told his parents that "your son is retarded" and would never amount to much.

"That stayed in my record through third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade," the jokey, energetic Realtor recalls. "Then in seventh grade, something clicked. I said to myself, 'I'm not retarded! Who do they think they are?'"

In high school he became a whirlwind. He was elected class president. He competed in debate and swimming. Going on to Northeastern Illinois University, he became president of his fraternity and the student government. He was invited to a seminar at the White House and got his picture taken with President Nixon.

"And every time I accomplished these things, I said to myself, 'Stick that 'retarded' label up your retarded butt," Wiszowaty said.

"When I graduated, the Vietnam War was still going on, so it was 'up your retarded butt' again. I had to be in the roughest, toughest fighting force on Earth, so I had to be a Marine."

Enlisting in the Corps, he served six months on active duty as a communications specialist, library clerk and finally payroll clerk, then 5 years in the reserves.

In civilian life, he worked as a fundraiser for NEIU, then for the past 30 years as a real estate agent for RE/MAX Suburban Realty in Schaumburg.

Wiszowaty weighed 150 pounds when he left active duty (no one ever "leaves the Marines," he notes). That shot up to 261 by New Year's of this year. So he began working out and dieting even before joining Fittest Loser. When he began the contest, he weighed in at 247.

Wiszowaty and his wife, Bonnie, have two daughters and a son, all grown, and five grandchildren, who helped inspire him to get into shape. He said his daughter Robin has lived in Kenya, Ghana, Haiti and now Ecuador, building schools with a nonprofit group called ME TO WE. But when he visited her family, living 9,000 feet above sea level, his fleshy body had trouble keeping up with his granddaughter's antics.

The other daughter, who lives in Iowa, has adopted two children whose brains were damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome and he'd like to spend more time with them, too.

"I have to get in shape to play with my grandchildren," he said. "If I can do this for the honor of the Marine Corps, I'll do this. If I can do this to play with my grandchildren, I'll do this."

His eyes brim with un-Marine-like tears.

"And this is one of those stick-up-your-retarded-butt challenges."

Penny Brown

U.S. Navy

Navy veteran Penny Brown, 37, of Fox Lake, spent most of her adult life as a stay-at-home mom. And she is using the Fittest Loser training to finally do something for herself as well as to become better equipped to take care of her husband and two children.

Fittest Loser contestant Penny Brown of Fox Lake served in the Navy.
  Fittest Loser contestant Penny Brown of Fox Lake served in the Navy. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Brown said she grew up in a small town in southern Ohio.

"After high school I worked some odd jobs while figuring out what I wanted to do. There were really no jobs where I came from, so I had to get out of there and move."

Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and she saw what she needed to do -- join the Navy, learn to be a "master of arms," as the Navy calls its military police, and maybe go on to a career as a civilian cop. She was stationed for all five years at a land base in Newport, Rhode Island.

That didn't lead to a police career. But she did meet her future husband, another master of arms stationed at Newport. They married 12 years ago and moved to his hometown -- Chicago -- then to Fox Lake in 2013.

Her husband does have a police-related job in the Chicago area, but she stayed home for nine years to raise their sons, who are now age 9 and 11. Even when she got an outside job again, it was close to those kids: she works as a lunch lady at their school in Fox Lake.

She said she wants to get in shape because her weight has ballooned since Navy days from 170 to 227 -- and what she learns might help her children, too.

"My weight has yo-yoed since I got out of the Navy. I'm not as fat as I have been at some times, but I feel unhealthy … Another reason is that my 9-year-old is 5 feet tall and weighs 140 pounds. It's been a challenge because we eat out a lot -- usually fast food on weekdays."

As for winning on behalf of the Navy, she said she feels a bit odd about that. "All my aunts and uncles were in the Army."

Russell Page

U.S. Air Force

Russell Page, 60, of Antioch, is the only "career" service person among the contestants.

Fittest Loser contestant Russ Page of Antioch served in the Air Force.
  Fittest Loser contestant Russ Page of Antioch served in the Air Force. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

He gained 90 pounds while traveling as a salesman for the Rolling Meadows-based military contractor Northrop Grumman. Wanting to turn that around, he already had started taking long walks with his wife and "eating healthy" before the Fittest Loser contest caught his eye.

Page grew up in a small town in Rhode Island, the son of a locksmith who worked for a university. And at 60, Page now commutes all the way from Antioch to DeKalb to teach entrepreneurship classes at Northern Illinois University.

But in between his Air Force career took him all over the world.

Reaching maturity just after the Vietnam War ended, Page joined the Air Force in 1974, a year after graduating from high school. "I wanted the opportunity to travel and get some training in electronics," he said.

He would be in electronics crews in the Air Force for 21 years, serving in the Netherlands, England, Germany, as well as many "stateside" bases. "At Edwards Air Force Base, a friend took me up in a two-seat F-16 fighter and I got to pull 9 Gs," he recalls fondly. "I was never in combat. But everywhere I went, terrorists seemed to be blowing things up -- the IRA in England, the Baader-Meinfhof Gang in Germany, the Suriname Group in Holland."

Leaving the service in 1995 with the rank of master sergeant, he worked for two years as a civilian adviser to the Saudi Arabian Air Force. Again the terrorists followed. A day after he visited a friend at a barracks in Saudi, a car bomber blew up a building across the street, killing many and injuring the friend.

Page then landed a job with Northrop Grumman and moved to the Chicago suburbs. "I retired a second time, from Northrop after 18 years, then started teaching at NIU," he jokes. "Apparently I can't retire right."

"I've been trying to lose weight and get fit since my second retirement," he said. "Working for Northrop, I was always traveling to the Middle East or Europe or the Far East. I wasn't eating right. I wasn't sleeping. Since retiring, I had started walking -- two miles a day, then five miles. My wife and I also have been slowly changing our diet in line with good healthy eating.

"Even before I saw the Fittest Loser ad, I had lost 30 pounds."

He said he weighed 180 pounds when he left the Air Force, ballooned to 270 during his years at Northrop, and started the contest at about 240.

Page said he'd like to be the Fittest Loser 2017. But no matter, what all that exercising and food changing leads to, "we're all going to win," he said.

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