At 350 pounds she thought she'd never lose weight. Her trainer helped change her mind and her body.
- Posted on Jul 24, 2017
There was a tall, dark-haired young man standing beside the front desk at the university rec center that day in June, looking around expectantly. His eyes landed on me, and his gaze sharpened. “Millie?” I nodded.
“Hi, I’m Sam,” he said, giving me a firm handshake. “Your new trainer.”
He had to be some kind of über-athlete. Well over six feet tall. Lean and muscular.
There’s got to be some mistake, I thought. No way does he want to work with me.
I’d dragged myself to the gym. Why, I wasn’t sure. I’d been going to the rec center for a year and had almost nothing to show for it. Even working with a personal trainer hadn’t helped. I’d already had three different trainers. Just when it seemed as if things were clicking, they’d move on to another job and I’d be back to square one. Not that I blamed them. At 50 years old and 350 pounds, I knew I wasn’t anyone’s first choice for fitness instruction.
Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone could change my fate. I’d tried dieting and exercise. Nothing worked. I was genetically destined to be like the other women in my family. Obese. Besieged by chronic health problems. My older sisters had diabetes. So did my mom. She’d lost a leg to the disease. Then when I was in college, she had a heart attack and died from complications of diabetes.
It was only a matter of time before I developed diabetes and went down a similar spiral. Already I was seeing doctors and on medication for high blood pressure, sleep apnea, joint pain. I’d had vein surgery because my excess weight caused blood to pool at my ankles.
It might sound strange, but I was resigned to being overweight and unhealthy. This was how God had made me. Why fight it? I didn’t even pray about my weight. Instead I asked for direction and perseverance.
God had blessed me with both when it came to my career. I’d moved to Tuscaloosa three years earlier to become the associate dean of the University of Alabama library. It was a demanding job—overseeing public and technical services, managing print collections and electronic resources, leading a staff of 49—and I thrived on the work. It gave me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. If I couldn’t push myself like that outside of work, I could live with it.
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Or maybe not, according to my doctors, especially Dr. Laubenthal, my GP. Every appointment brought the same refrain: “Millie, you need to lose weight.”
The year before, Dr. Laubenthal had been even more blunt. “Do you want to die young?” he asked. “You have to make a decision to change your health.”
The seriousness of what he was saying sank in. I’d joined the rec center. But I wasn’t committed to working out. If I made it to the rec center, more often than not, I’d get drive-through fast food on the way home.
It wasn’t exactly a recipe for health. In fact, I’d had a fast-food sausage biscuit over the weekend and gotten so sick I had to cancel a long-planned trip. Honestly, I felt as if I couldn’t sink much lower.
Now here was this handsome new trainer asking, “Ready to get started?”
Ready to give up was more like it.
Sam told me he’d been on the University of Alabama swim team and recently graduated with a degree in exercise science. “I’m psyched to be working with you,” he said. “Let’s warm up on the track.”
The track was on the second floor. I pushed the elevator button like always.
Sam gave me an incredulous look. “You’re here to get healthy, right? C’mon, we’re taking the stairs.”
I was winded by the time we got upstairs to the track. Sam, however, was undeterred. “Start walking,” he said.
Halfway around, my knee was aching. “Keep going,” Sam urged. “Finish a lap, then we’ll go back downstairs.”
When my hour with him was up, my legs were like Jell-O. I just wanted to go home and lie down, but Sam wasn’t finished. He pulled out his phone and asked when I would be coming again. “Let’s get it on the calendar.” The next day, my whole body was sore. But I went to the rec center. For some reason, I didn’t want to disappoint Sam. He didn’t seem surprised to see me walking around the track. He nodded and said, “Keep up that pace, Millie,” as if he expected nothing less than my best.
Within a few weeks, Sam handed me a fitness plan for the days I didn’t meet with him. “It’s all about accountability,” he said. “I want you to write down what you did and report back to me.”
I worked out five days a week, twice with Sam, three times on my own. When I tried to cancel my training session because of morning meetings, he wouldn’t hear of it. “You need to establish healthy habits, and that’s not going to happen if you skip workouts,” he said. “Come after work. I’ll be here.”
Sam was born in Alabama, when his father was in the Air Force. He had a sense of commitment and a strong work ethic instilled in him from an early age. He’d grown up in St. Louis but had come to swim at Alabama on a full scholarship because it was where his father had gone to school and where he had extended family. His dream was to be a trainer and a coach. Sam was passionate about what he did. I could relate to that. I felt the same way about my work.
Each week he pushed me to do a little more. Another 10 pounds on the chest press machine. Another quarter mile around the track. Another 10 seconds holding a plank. Running a lap instead of walking. Exercising was hard. So was the restricted meal plan I was following. Still, the more I moved and the healthier I ate, the better I felt. My clothes grew baggy, which really ramped up my motivation.
But my knee kept aching. “We’ll do low-impact cardio,” Sam said. “Water aerobics. Swimming.”
“No way!” I said. “I’m not getting in the pool.” I could swim but not very well because I was afraid of the water. If my feet couldn’t touch the bottom, I panicked.
“The deep end is only five feet,” Sam said. “Besides, I’m a certified lifeguard. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Nope. Not doing it.”
I should’ve known Sam wasn’t going to let up. He brought up swimming again. And again.
By the end of August my knee was so swollen, I could hardly put weight on it. “I don’t have a choice,” I told Sam. “I have to take time off from exercise.”
“You do have a choice,” he said. “You can swim. Just try it.”
We had our first swim session at the beginning of September. I hugged the side of the pool as Sam coaxed me to float on my back. Anytime the water splashed near my face, I stood up. I felt like a vulnerable child.
Just as he did in the training room, Sam pushed me to do a little more each time in the pool. At first I couldn’t swim one 25-yard length without stopping. Soon I was doing laps. He tweaked my freestyle stroke, taught me the backstroke and how to swim underwater. Swimming became my favorite form of cardio. Somehow Sam always seemed to know when I could do more than I thought I could.
In five months, I’d lost 60 pounds. But it couldn’t have been the most exciting assignment for him. After all, I was still one of the least fit people at the gym. “Wouldn’t you rather be training someone else?” I asked him one day. “An athlete?”
Sam looked puzzled. “Millie, I asked to be your trainer,” he said. “I’d watched other trainers work with you, and I really wanted to have a chance to help you.”
Sam broke into a grin as I absorbed what he said. I wasn’t just a client he’d been assigned to. He actually cared about me!
After that, there was nothing I wouldn’t do for him. When he suggested a cycling class, not only did I try it, but I also got the wild notion to compete in a triathlon—swim, bike, run. I told Sam at our next session.
Sam built my pool workouts so I could get comfortable covering the distances required in sprint triathlons. I bought a bike and took it out on flat roads at first, then joined a cycling club. In October I ran my first 5K race. I had to slow to a walk for parts of it, but I finished.
Early one chilly March morning, nine months after I started training with Sam, I unloaded my bike from my car for my first triathlon, on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. I set up my bike and gear in the transition area, then went to the pool.
The first leg was the swim—440 meters. I’d covered that distance many times at the rec center. This pool was longer and deeper. I tried not to think about how much deeper. You’re prepared for this, I told myself as I waited in line to start. Every 10 seconds, an athlete dove in to swim through the snaking lanes.
My turn. I dove in and swam freestyle, concentrating on breathing the way Sam had taught me. Near the end of the first lane, I hit the deep water. Someone in the second lane touched my foot, then bumped me under the water as he swam by. I felt myself sinking and freaked out. I grabbed the lane rope. Dear God, I can’t do this.... Then I thought about what a friend had texted me the night before: “God made you bold.” And she said she would be praying for me.
Sam. Calling to me from the pool deck. “Listen to my voice! Keep going. Backstroke.”
My eyes met his. He gave me that look I’d come to know so well, that look that told me, I believe in you. I expect nothing less than your best. He’d never once given up on me. I couldn’t give up either.
I flipped onto my back and let go of the rope. I pulled my arm back through the water, kicked my legs. “You got this, Millie!”
Twenty minutes later, I scrambled out of the pool. “Yes!” Sam shouted, pumping his fist.
Next, the 21-kilometer bike leg. I’d been worried about the hilly route, but I made it up every hill without stopping.
My feet were so cold, it was hard to start running. The route across the Ole Miss campus was the longest five kilometers I’d ever run. My mind went blank. My feet felt leaden. My slow jogging was closer to walking.
In the distance, I saw Sam. There for me as always. I picked up my pace and crossed the finish line.
“You did it!” He gave me a big hug.
“I couldn’t have done it without you,” I gasped.
I didn’t mean just finishing this race. Sam’s way of training and coaching had changed me more than physically. He’d transformed my mind-set. His steadfast belief in me taught me to believe in myself. My destiny wasn’t to be sick and miserable but to be the bold woman the Lord made me. Bold enough to challenge myself to get—and stay—fit and healthy.
I remain committed to that, seven years after I started training with Sam. These days we work out at Iron Tribe Fitness, the gym he manages. I still compete in triathlons. I have also completed my master’s degree in health education and become a restorative yoga teacher. My hope is to help people the way Sam helped me, to believe it’s never too late to change your destiny.