Scores of Weight Watchers put themselves to the test
By BRYAN ROTH
Finger Lakes Times
GENEVA — This weekend’s Musselman Triathlon is sure to bring seasoned athletes to the Finger Lakes. You know, the type of folks you’d expect to swim over a mile, bike 56 miles and then run 13 more ... the type whose endurance and commitment to physical fitness has been inspiring others for decades.
But there will also be one special group of women who have found inspiration among themselves and are sharing it with others as they set their sights on goals they would have considered impossible a few years ago.
Bonnie Crawford is one of them, and she’s coming from Beaverton, Ore., to be part of the Weight Watchers contingent that’s grown from a few marathon runners in 2002 to 150-plus women who have been tackling the shorter triathlons.
They’ll be in Geneva to support each other and show themselves what they’re capable of.
Their individual stories range from those of an Ironman competitor to a former quadriplegic to Crawford, who has almost halved her weight in three years. Through it all, they’ve been Internet and race-course lifelines for one another.
Take Floridian Wendy Welch, who back in 2003 couldn’t have conceived of being a triathlete.
“I didn’t even know how to swim!” she said. “Just doggy paddle.”
But lessons at the Daytona Beach YMCA solved that problem, and within months, the 42-year-old doctor was competing in her first Danskin series triathlon.
“Swimming has really turned into something I’m decent at,” she said. “Running sort of turned into triathlons, triathlons have turned into swimming, swimming has turned into kayaking.”
Welch, who weighed 228 pounds when she started Weight Watchers, has competed her way down to 168 since 2002. With her newfound affection for the water, she has started kayaking, rows crew and has been a lifeguard-like volunteer for Danskin [triathlons].
But, the change isn’t just physical.
Welch is a psychiatrist and once she saw the way triathlons changed her life, she began encouraging her patients to follow suit.
“Exercise and eating healthy manages depression, and it makes all the medicines I prescribe work better,” she said. “Obviously, not all my patients want to do triathlons, but I try to help patients figure out what their exercise personality is.”
• • •
Doing what you like can make all the difference.
Dog groomer Kathleen Putman, for instance, was 45 — and suffering from weight-related knee problems — when she found her exercise personality.
She joined Weight Watchers in 2002 and started doing water aerobics and bicycling again. While browsing on the organization’s Web site, she stumbled across the tri-athlete message board and found the thing that would help her work off the pounds.
“I was looking at the ‘tri-ers’ thread thinking, ‘Oh, what a neat group,’ but I could never do a triathlon,” she said. “As time progressed, I thought maybe I could.”
And she did. In 2003, she joined the group for her first Danskin series triathlon and competed across a shortened, “sprint” distance.
She was hooked.
Setting her sights on Chicago for the following year, Putman started training. But just a few weeks later, an accident jettisoned her exercise regimen.
Putman was riding to work on a bicycle route when she was rear-ended by a car going roughly 45 in a 35 mph zone. She was thrown into the air, hit the car’s windshield and tumbled to the ground.
“I was in the [intensive care unit] for about five weeks with spinal cord fractures, fractures to my shoulder and hip on the left side, pelvic fractures and a tear in my aorta,” she said. “I was in a coma for a while, so the first four weeks I don’t remember. I just remember people saying things like ‘Oh there’s been a bad accident,’ and I didn’t realize they were talking about me.”
Stuck in a hospital in Dallas, Putman’s first thought she’d bounce back in no time and race another triathlon. She didn’t realize that the accident had left her a quadriplegic. But, despite doctors comparing her prognosis to actor Christopher Reeve’s, Putman was determined to race again.
She entered rehab, close to her family in Cincinnati, and in three months went from not being able to move her arms or legs to using a walker.
For the Chicago event, the group formed “Team Kathleen” in her honor, and Putman showed up — much to their surprise.
“[The triathlon] was still looking for volunteers, so they gave me a job handing out finisher medals,” she said. “When they saw me at the finish line they were all overtaken.”
A year later, Putman returned to Chicago, this time as the final leg of a relay team.
“We tried to set it up so the two (Weight Watchers) teams would be fairly matched as far as speed, [so] the whole plan was to accompany me,” she said. “We brought along the wheelchair ... in case I couldn’t finish or I needed a break.”
But she didn’t. Putman walked the final three miles with crutches, but under her own power — and with a mushrooming support group.
“As different people finished they would come back to join me,” she said. “When I crossed the finish line, everyone was there.”
Now back at school to finish a degree in graphic design, Putman is also working on racing again. She said she’s slowly getting to the point where she can walk without crutches, and she can already swim the length of a pool by herself. While her friends and family may look to her for inspiration, she looks to Pat Rummerfield, who she said is the only quadriplegic to ever fully recover and participate in a triathlon.
“I’m thinking ‘Well, maybe if he can do it, that might be out there for me, too,’” she said. “So, who knows, maybe in 10 to 15 years I’ll do an Ironman.”
• • •
Even without such monumental obstacles, triathlon competition presents challenges.
Just about anyone in this group will tell you that the hardest part isn’t the rigors of the sport, it’s the family balancing act.
“I’ve really enjoyed the training, but it’s difficult to abandon my family for five to six hours on the weekends to do the long rides and runs,” said Mia Byrne of Plymouth, Mich., who has dropped more than 30 of the 187 pounds she started Weight Watchers with in 1989. “I’ll never be fast — I’m out there for me and to finish — but you just can’t miss a three- to four-hour bike ride and feel like you will make it through a long-distance race.”
She has some help in the motivation department, though.
After watching her husband survive five surgeries and chemotherapy for abdominal cancer — and then do a triathlon — Byrne figured she could give it a shot, too.
“You see other people with all kinds of life or physical challenges and think ‘Geez, if they’re doing this, then what’s my excuse?’” she said.
Hardest of all are getting up at 4 and 5 a.m. to train and leaving her 10-year-old son behind when she travels to races. Combined, they’ve gotten to be enough of a drawback that the Musselman may be her last race.
Jackie Nowak of Charleston, Mass., juggles the two loves by bringing her son Wyatt, 10, to compete in the MusselKids portion of the event.
“He’s very competitive so I try to give him some tips,” she said. “It makes training fun.”
• • •
While all the Weight Watchers women have seen their weight go down, Crawford’s transformation has been the biggest. The last three years have been a life-altering experience that has taken her from 358 pounds to 200.
“Today you’re seeing so many people losing a dramatic amount of weight because of surgery, [but] everyone in the group has done it a natural way,” she said. “It’s slow and steady with no gimmicks and no magic pill. Just focus and perseverance.”
Crawford, 29, participated in her first triathlon weighing 290 pounds. Since then, she’s raced in a handful, from sprints to half-Ironmans — 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and 13.1 miles of running. All the while, her weight, and clothing sizes, have dropped.
“When I walked in the door at Weight Watchers I was a size 34 ... the largest size you can buy in a plus-size store,” she said. “Now I’m down to a 16 and can’t even shop in [those] stores anymore.”
Karis North, a Hull, Mass., attorney has seen similar changes. Formerly a “yo-yo dieter,” she has shed almost 80 pounds in more than two years with the triathlon group.
Reading the message board daily helped her envision an athletic future.
“I couldn’t believe this life-long fat girl was about to become a tri-athlete,” she said. “But these women helped make triathlon accessible to someone like me, [they] encouraged and supported me.”
“Hardly any of the girls in our group are winning, but we inspire people on the sidelines,” Crawford said. “If we can go out there and do these triathlons, then maybe they’ll think ‘I can try it as well.’”
The Musselman Triathlon is scheduled for July 16, with races starting at 7 a.m. For more information, visit musselmantri.com.
For the article in its original form, please see http://www.fltimes.com
And yes, I'm one of the women quoted in the article. See y'all in the Finger Lakes!!