True role models: Annual Fittest Loser Challenge became toughest one ever

It wasn't the finale everyone was hoping for, of course, but nearly 150 signed on for the virtual celebration for the 2020 Fittest Loser Challenge on May 12.

For the four contestants, it was a bittersweet ending to a journey that started with great enthusiasm back in February.

When the Daily Herald and Push Fitness put out the call for Fittest Loser volunteers last winter, our theme for the year was going to be role models. We were looking for people who were willing to put themselves out there to be an inspiration to others - be it family, friends, neighbors, co-workers or even perfect strangers. We wanted contestants who had overcome challenges in the past and were willing to share their stories. We selected four readers and one Daily Herald writer who we thought fit that description.

Little did we know how true that would be.

COVID-19, of course, changed everything.

Losing weight and starting an exercise program is never an easy proposition. Taking control of your health is a difficult undertaking in the best of times and most people need a lot of support from others to be successful. Changing your entire lifestyle in the shadow of a pandemic and while sheltering at home takes a certain amount of grit and determination.

Our contestants - Kurt “Van” Dillenkoffer, Jennifere Lux, Barbara Simon and Neil Madden - as well as our writer, Dick Quagliano, carried on like troopers.

Instead of relying on external factors - the watchful eye of their Push Fitness trainer, the camaraderie of the gym, the “in person” encouragement of friends - they had to dig deep inside of themselves and see what they were made of.

Of course, their Push Fitness trainers were still there guiding them and giving them the support they needed - via texts, emails and video workouts sent every few days.

To a person, they came out champions. Here's how they fared and here's what they want to say to others out there who are looking to take charge of their health in good times and bad:

  Karl "Van" Dillenkoffer with Push Fitness owner Joshua Steckler at the final weigh-in for Fittest Loser contestants. Brian Hill/

This year's winner, Van Dillenkoffer, 70, of Wheaton lost 49 pounds or 20.1% of his body weight. He was trained by Michelle Jeeninga.

“If you are going to begin a weight-loss program, make the full commitment to yourself and remember it's a marathon not a race. You can do it,” he said.

  Jennifere Lux at the final weigh-in at Push Fitness in Schaumburg. Brian Hill/

Jennifere Lux, 40, of Wheaton, shed 33 pounds, 15.6% of her body weight. She was trained by Steve Amsden. “I learned I am a lot stronger mentally and physically then I ever thought I was,” she said.

  Barbara Simon at the final weigh-in for Fittest Loser contestants at Push Fitness in Schaumburg. Brian Hill/

Barbara Simon, 39, of Buffalo Grove, took off 33 pounds and shed 14.4% of her body weight. She was trained by Patrick Stille. “I thoroughly enjoyed meeting each of my fellow contestants. Even though most of the contest was done at a distance, we still had a special bond I will keep with me forever,” she said. “I learned so much about healthy eating and exercise that will stay with me as I continue on my weight loss and healthy living journey. (I'm not done yet!)”

  Neil Madden at the final weigh-in. Brian Hill/

Neil Madden, 58, of Naperville, lost 45 pounds and 14.1% of his body weight. He was trained by Nicole Caliva. “Never give up hope. Reach down inside of yourself and find your inner strength. One never knows their will to fight unless they are willing to discover it,” he said.

Our writer, Dick Quagliano, dropped 48 pounds and 17% of his body weight. Dick was trained by Push Fitness owner Joshua Steckler. “I really believe this saved my life. I am the healthiest I have been in a very long time. I plan to continue the lessons that I have learned here.”

At the finale, Steckler told the crowd: “I am really proud of what everyone was able to accomplish this year. What this taught us is that you can lose weight and get healthier even under stressful times. You just need to be surrounded by the right people.”

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