Reader Transformation Stories

By Michael Mercieca & Joanne Nabors – January 2, 2013
My Story of Transformation
by Michael Mercieca

Staying fit and healthy after 40 is a challenge for most everyone. Staying fit and healthy over 50 adds another “wrinkle” to that agenda and in the context of a martial arts fighting sport?  Well, that changes the whole game.

As a boy of 11, I was anemic, couldn’t run 100 yards, and was the victim of school and neighborhood bullying. With encouragement and much motivation, I enrolled at a Judo club. It literally saved my life and gave me tools, values, and a foundation for life that I still utilize.

Over the years, I was fortunate enough to earn a number of National and World international medals but, as age and life’s responsibilities, including fatherhood, filled my life, my health suffered and unhealthy habits took over. Getting back my usual level of fitness was such a struggle; why even bother?

I set myself a goal that, at 50 years old, I wanted to be in the best shape of my life. I was also going through some of the worst stress of my life; it all culminated with me losing my job at Microsoft in February 2012 after almost 18 years of employment.

I felt a terrible sense of loss and despair.  Knowing my own strengths and weaknesses, I realized I had to find a goal that would serve as momentum to pick me up, move me forward, and keep me from becoming mired in negativity that could overwhelm me.

Judo was my salve and I looked for a challenge that could supply the drive I needed to simply get going and keep going forward. As fate would have it, the U.S.A. National Masters Championship was being held in Dallas in a couple of months. This event was run in conjunction with the Nationals and Olympic Trials and included competitors over 30 years of age.

I set about establishing a comprehensive training regimen that included Judo mat time as well as conditioning training, massage, chiropractic care, and a thorough overhaul of my diet and nutritional intake.

At UT Austin Judo Club, Peter Hoang and Danil Martakov were gracious enough to allow me to train with them, which made a huge difference–and resulted in a cracked rib just three weeks before the competition!

Despite this setback, I stayed on course.  The journey was tough but the positive energy and validation I received from my friends and trainers was amazing and lifted my spirits. My incredible support team included Rachel Bercey at Castle Hill Fitness, Robert Schmidt at Restoration Chiropractic, Dane Krager at Dane’s Body Shop, and Glen Lepnitz at N4H Research (who advised me on sport-specific diet and nutrition) and was instrumental in my physical care and conditioning.

The training preparation alone equated to more than 1,020 minutes for every minute competing but was well worth it.  I won the gold medal in the 50-54 years category  (81kg or 178.5 lbs.) to become the National Masters Champion!

Worth more than this was the support and inspiration I received from my 12-year-old son, Mikey. Mikey is an athlete and a positive kid, and it was important to me to pass on this experience in order to teach him important values such as work ethic, goal-orientated training, discipline, and focus on a healthy long-term lifestyle.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”  What better way to model those values than winning a National title at 50—and with a cracked rib?

Being healthy is and has always been important to me and, hopefully, this will pass along to my son and he will be motivated to take care of himself through healthy habits. Also, my training and ultimate success in the Nationals was a source of inspiration for my “plus 40” friends and a reminder to us all—we may be older but we aint dead!

We 40/50-something’s still have much to learn, much to offer, and much more life to live, so look out the next time you are training …we seniors may just pass you by!

My Story of Transformation
by JoAnne Nabors

In December of 2002, I tipped the scales at 317 pounds.  I set a goal to lose 150 pounds, wrote it down, and told one of my mentors.  He suggested I create affirmations and train my thoughts to reinforce my
desired changes:  “I am inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds” and “just being me is good enough to be great” are two that helped with those first steps.  I didn’t have a road map on how to accomplish this goal and, clearly, my lifestyle and thinking had gotten me to this “morbidly obese” weight.  One of my friends was participating in the Jingle Bell 5K in downtown Austin and I mentioned that I wished I could do a 5K someday.  She assured me that I could do it, even at that moment, because I could walk the entire course if I needed to.

Fear is an interesting emotion; it holds people back from learning or experiencing many new things, and I’m embarrassed to say that it took me almost a year to take my very first step towards fitness.  I saw an advertisement for the Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure 5K in November of 2003.  My mother died of breast cancer, so I thought this would be something I could do in her honor.  It really didn’t matter how “hard” I thought the event would be; millions of people have cancer, and that is harder.  On the day of the race, a friend dropped me off on the Congress Avenue Bridge near the start.  I was shocked by the number of people swarming around and became nervous, disoriented, and overwhelmed reading the In Memory Of and In Honor Of signs that people attached to their shirts.  I remember crying at the beginning and the end of the course.  I just completed a 5K!

I called my friend to share my excitement and she told me I should do the Danskin Women’s Triathlon Series in June and that it would “change my life.”  That was March of 2004, and I realized I didn’t have the knowledge or self-discipline to train for a triathlon; I wasn’t even sure if they would let someone who weighed 278 pounds enter the event.  I went to an informational meeting for a women’s training group sponsored by Danskin.  During the meeting, I sat quietly and watched.  Many of the women looked fit, but there were a lot of “normal” people and a handful that were definitely packing some extra pounds.  A few “normal” people gave testimonials and the energy in the room was electric.  I waited for everyone else to leave and then nervously approached Coach Tracy Nelson of Tri Zones Training.  I introduced myself and quietly said that I wanted to complete a triathlon but I hadn’t ridden my bike since elementary school.  I asked, “Do you really think you can teach me to do this?  That I could cross the finish line, even at my size?” Coach Tracy replied with one word: “ABSOLUTELY!”   Her answer literally changed my life.  In retrospect, it was more than just her words; it was her conviction.  She didn’t look me over head-to-toe and ponder her response; she didn’t ask me questions about my fitness or activity level. She knew that the systematic process of being on a team of like-minded individuals, having a coach, and following a training plan was an effective way to accomplish a goal.  I posted a new affirmation (I am a healthy and fit triathlete) and repeated it in the mornings and as I swam.  I finished the race in 2:38:40 minutes.

Over the next few years, I worked on areas of my life that would ultimately lead to a life-long transformation of my body.  I devoured books on positive self-talk, goal setting, and fitness.  I completed the Danskin Triathlon again in 2005 and 2006 without serious commitment or training in the off-season.  My progress was very slow, but I continued to stay involved with Tri Zones Training and learned many things about nutrition, hydration and equipment.  More important were the friendships I built and the synergy of being with people who valued sacrificing their personal time and money to work out and who also believed in me; this was the foundation of my transformation.  I participated in the Dilloman Triathlon and got a taste of a co-ed event… the first of many times I have been passed on the bike by someone who had wheels that I could hear approaching.  The sound, like a helicopter descending on Pace Bend Park Road, frightened me and the Spandex-clad guy, wearing his matching alien-like pointy helmet, didn’t say “on your left” as he passed nor did he allow much distance between us.  I laughed as I thought how irritated he would have been if I had freaked out and crashed into him.  Thankfully, I was a seasoned triathlete.  I peddled my heavy mountain bike along like the fabled tortoise:  I am a healthy and fit triathlete; I am inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds.

Over the next few years I worked off and on with a trainer, gained and lost the same 30 pounds, and dealt with some tough life blows that distracted me from focusing on my fitness goals.  I went through a health scare, job difficulties, and a divorce after 19 years of marriage.  Being at “rock bottom” allowed me to paint with wide brush strokes and recreate the world in which I lived.  I looked back at my goals for the past decade. Most had been accomplished except losing 150 pounds.  I had achieved one-third of that goal, but weighing 265 pounds was by no means a success.  So I analyzed.  I made a list of things that had worked during the times I made the most progress.  I noted with whom I associated, how I spent my free time, and the daily disciplines that allowed me to take small steps toward a large goal, and it all came back to one thing: It was that darn triathlon!

In March of 2011, on what would have been my twentieth wedding anniversary, I weighed 252 pounds.  I made a firm commitment that I was going to change my life.  Instead of tallying all of my failures, I was going to create my own success story.  I reconnected with Tri Zones Training’s Tracy Nelson and paid for the spring session.  I was starting over.  Having amassed a great deal of debt in the divorce, I had little time or money to do anything besides work and attend the group workouts. I was now more teachable and more committed.  I reintroduced myself to my primary care physician and had lab work and a physical done so I would know my starting point (again).  It is unfortunate that many people skip this step because they think it will be too depressing to see the “real” numbers.  In reality, the first few months of a new fitness program produce great results but, without starting data, there aren’t concrete numbers to celebrate.  While I was ashamed that I had fallen off the wagon, my teammates were happy I was back.  Asking people to join you in your journey provides accountability when things are tough and an outside perspective to encourage you when you are down.  I learned to never underestimate the impact of a great cheerleader!

Even though I had spent a few years as a workout leader, I informed my coach I wanted to move back to the beginner team.  After a week of training, I realized that the knowledge I’d acquired was still there; I just needed to put in the time to regain the physical endurance.  I tend to want things to happen instantly, but the reality is that most things requiring lasting change take a lot of time and effort.  On days that I wanted to skip my training group, I knew I had teammates that would notice I wasn’t there who’d call to check on me.  The community was a magnet that pulled me to group workouts even when my body wanted to crawl in bed or watch TV.  When I felt I couldn’t go on, I showed up and cried through my training…and then experienced a sense of pride that I’d pushed through a quitting point.  I started watching and copying what athletes did when facing trials.  I picked up all of the free magazines about health and fitness and read online blogs.  I am a healthy and fit triathlete; I am inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds.

On September 6, 2011, I met with my mentor from 2002 to review my affirmations.  I realized that I needed to step up my commitment to fitness if I wanted to achieve at a higher level, and so  I made a decision that I was going to track everything I ate in MyFitnessPal, an online calorie counter and diet plan  without any judgmental goals; I just wanted to create the habits of tracking and awareness.  (I will always remember that date because it is my ex-husband’s birthday and the day we got engaged in 1990.  Whenever I become weary, I remind myself that I’ve been disciplined since that anchor date and, if I give up, I will have to start all over again.)  I researched and read bios of personal trainers to find someone who could help me achieve MY goals, not their corporate or personal goals.  I hired Jordan Johnson at 24 Hour Fitness, and we put together a plan to fine-tune my focus, acquire new knowledge, and have more accountability.  I completed six triathlons last year, ending with the Trek Women’s Triathlon in Bermuda, my “reward” race to celebrate losing 100 pounds.  I was 2/3 of the way to my goal.  I am a healthy and fit triathlete; I am inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds.

On January 1, 2012, I decided there would be no more “off-season” for me.  People often advise you to NOT set a list of New Year’s resolutions because you will fail and be depressed but I decided I would make one commitment to track all of my exercise activities in an old triathlon log.  I continued tracking my food and water and was able to overlay this data to make adjustments for further success.  I wanted to do all of the Austin-y races I’d watched over the past 25 years and was now finally able to do. I trained for the 3M Half Marathon in January 2012.  I found a new partner in crime and started doing cycling events such as the Rosedale Ride (20 miles), Autism Ride (44 miles), Red Poppy Ride (50 miles), Outlaw Trail Ride (62 miles), and the LiveStrong Ride (65 miles), adding a new mantra:  I am a cyclist.  In the spring of 2012, I signed up for the Texas Triathlon Series, thinking it would be a miracle if I could complete ten triathlons, including my first Olympic-distance race, but on November 9, I took home my 2012 Series Finishers Award and placed it prominently on my mantle.  I currently celebrate everything, even going from “morbidly obese” to “obese” to just “overweight.”  I was the happiest overweight person in Austin this summer!

These days, I am committed to having open and honest conversations with people who are struggling with ANY obstacle, and one of the things that continues to give me great joy is inspiring someone else to take the very first step, then the next.  I share my truth statement (I am inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds) even though I have not yet crossed that finish line.  I am ten pounds away; when I reach my goal, I’ll check that off my dream list and then will set my next goal.  While my true goal is to lose an additional 30 pounds, I’ll fight the temptation to move the finish line further out. That action robs me of the celebration of finishing a hard-fought race.  Can you imagine nearing the end of the 3M Half Marathon and watching the race director move the finish tape a quarter mile farther down Congress Avenue?

I’ve learned that small, incremental changes have lasting effects.  My friends are now athletes, my vacations are planned are around races, and my rewards are upgraded gear and equipment.  I train with people who are better than I am because it makes me faster.  I am currently sitting on my lanai in Hawaii while planning a ten-mile run tomorrow, just for the fun of it (I figured it was a good way to earn a few days lazing on the beach).  What’s ahead for 2013?  A century (100 miles) bike ride in the spring, the MS150 ride from Houston to Austin in April, Colin’s Hope four-mile swim in August, and the Texas Tri Series, culminating with my first half Ironman-distance race at the Kerrville Triathlon Festival in September.  I will act as a Sherpa (someone who helps a racer with gear and logistics) next November at Ironman Florida and in 2014, I will finish Ironman Florida before the 17-hour cutoff.  I currently weigh 177 pounds.  I AM a healthy and fit triathlete.  

My overall conviction is that you have to synergize success.  Make it happen; ask for help!  I know there is no way I would be where I am now without the countless people who have propped me up, picked me up, and pushed me forward.  Check back in a few months—the affirmation that I have been saying for 10 years will finally be a reality: I AM inspirationally successful because I’ve lost 150 pounds.

My Story of Transformation
by Teresa A. Valdez

All runners have their own journeys and reasons for running. Some have loved running all their lives. Some get started later. Some do it for health reasons or get dragged into it by a friend or loved one then get attached to it. Here is my story.

My earliest memories of running are not pleasant. I remember doing the physical fitness test in sixth grade and having to run a mile. Running was such a struggle. It was so painful. I had terrible shin splints and trouble breathing. In sixth grade, I tried as hard as I could when we did our mile run and finished in about 11 minutes. I was the last one in the class. By eighth grade, I was no longer trying hard; I did my mile "run" in 24 minutes because I walked the whole way. I was short and chubby and didn't see the appeal of running. By high school, I was doing everything I could to avoid running.

My second semester in college, I took a swimming class. I was terrified of not being able to keep up with everyone else in the class.  On the first day, I wasn't even able to swim the length of the pool. By the last day of class, I was swimming a mile. I took swimming just about every semester until I graduated and, in my last semester, I took classes on how to be a swimming instructor, a lifeguard, and an advanced swimming conditioning class. My advanced conditioning class was at the Texas Swim Center instead of the familiar 1930s-era Gregory Gym pool (since renovated) –and, oh, I loved swimming in that pool! In that advanced class, I was back to being the slowest, but I knew I needed to push myself or I would never get better. The class that met afterwards was specifically for triathletes. Up until that point in my life, triathlon was something so far removed from me that I had never considered it. But the people I saw in that class just seemed like regular people and a seed was planted.

After I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two and a half years in Bolivia, an experience that changed my life in a million different ways.  The biggest change was in the friends I made. My Peace Corps friends became like sisters, and they were some of the first people I had ever met who ran for fun. It seemed like all Peace Corps volunteers were runners; even in the rural villages and high plains of Bolivia, they were training for marathons and half marathons and all kinds of other races. At that point in my life, I wasn't in any kind of shape to start running but being surrounded by runners definitely made an impact. I remember telling my friends how much I liked swimming and we talked about triathlons and other such things. The seed had sprouted.

In 2004, I completed my Peace Corps service, married a Bolivian, and came back home. Because my life in Bolivia had been so different from my life in the United States (lots of hiking in the mountains, a diet of all-natural foods, and a steady stream of intestinal parasites), I came home 60 pounds lighter than when I’d left. While I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, I did know that I wanted to do a triathlon. I bought a bike, joined a gym, and registered for the Danskin triathlon in 2005. I was living with my parents in Houston at the time, but I moved back to Austin in May, planning on doing Danskin that June.

My husband was not very supportive of my efforts to train. He constantly made comments about my weight and I started to get depressed.  I quit training. I didn't do Danskin that year and, by the time Danskin rolled around the next year, I had gained over a hundred pounds. I ate because I was depressed and I ate to get back at my husband for calling me fat.

In October of 2006, I started working at a high school as a teaching assistant with some troubled kids; because I really liked it, I became a bilingual teacher. Things still weren't much fun at home, so I focused on work and school. In June of 2007, my husband finally moved out and I got my first real teaching job, but the 2007-2008 school year was one of the hardest of my life.

While the first year of teaching is always hard, it was especially brutal for me. My principal was horrible to me, I was struggling financially, and I didn't know what I was doing as far as teaching was concerned. But not having all that negative energy from my husband started to make a difference. I was ready to do some things I hadn't been able to do while he was around—and a triathlon was the first thing on my list.

I filed for divorce and signed up for Danskin training with Iron Chicks the same day. The entire time I was married, my husband had told me I was weak and fat and could never do something like a triathlon. My horrible boss told me I didn't have enough stamina to teach. I had something to prove. But I was really scared.

I knew I could do the swimming part, no problem, as I felt a freedom in the water that I never felt on land—I was weightless!  And while I wasn't thrilled about the running part, it was okay, too. The part that terrified me (and still does some, even now) was the bike. I’d loved to ride my bike when I was a kid, but riding when you are ten and riding when you are 29 are two very different things. I was also 100 pounds heavier in 2008 than I was when I bought that bike. Falling off your bike when you are that big is going to hurt.

My first bike ride as part of Iron Chicks training started in the parking lot of Northwest Pool early one Saturday morning. There was a little talk about gear, routes were handed out, and we were supposed to go out and ride. At that moment, I was seriously reconsidering my decision to train for a triathlon. I was terrified. I remember waiting for everyone to leave so no one would see me fall down when I tried to get on my bike. I remember standing over my bike and staring at the puddles in the parking lot. And I remember Michael.

The Iron Chicks team members had been separated into groups based on distance and speed. The coaches rode off with different groups and, at some point it was just me and Michael—the only male coach—left in the parking lot. One of the other coaches had asked him to ride with me and I thought, "How could this get any worse? They won't even leave me alone and let me fall down with nobody watching." I stood over my bike, trembling and wishing he weren’t there, but he was watching, so I had to do something. It took a couple of tries, but I finally got on my bike and started moving. And Michael was right behind me.

I was in horrible shape and had to get off my bike and walk up even the smallest inclines. Every time I got back on, it was a struggle. But Michael was endlessly patient. He talked to me a lot, asked me what I did for a living. When I told him that I was a teacher, his response was, "That's way harder than this," and I laughed. I guess teaching is harder than triathlon. After a while, I started to feel more relaxed. Michael wasn't going to let anything happen to me. We talked a lot. I learned Michael worked for the sheriff's office. He had three kids.

I don't know how far we rode that day but it couldn't have been much, maybe three or four miles. Michael never laughed at me. I remember thinking how different he was from my husband and how I couldn't possibly hate all men because, if there was one like Michael, surely there had to be others.

After that first bike ride, I started to feel a little more comfortable. I continued with my training; Michael was coaching a different group, but my bike coach, Leilani, and my run coach, Ginny, were pretty awesome, too. They encouraged me to do my first triathlon, Skeese Greets, about a month before Danskin. That one was tough. Being the final finisher was kind of embarrassing, but at least I finished. I remember seeing Michael on the bike course that day. He was a volunteer and he cheered me on. Ginny did part of the run with me but she made sure I ran through the finish by myself. I may have finished last but I had come a long way and was proud of myself.

The first week of June, I did my first Danskin triathlon. It was really, really, hard, but I finished. I was not even last! I signed up for another triathlon and on June 25, 2008, my divorce became final. I felt like I was really on a roll. I had lost 25 pounds and felt better about myself than I had in a long time. One day during my training, I was running up a hill while thinking about my horrible principal’s comment about how I didn't have enough stamina for teaching, and I thought, "I'll show you stamina," and I charged up that hill.

Just a few days after my divorce was finalized, Michael was killed in a cycling accident. I hadn’t known him long and didn't know him well, but I was devastated. I often think back on all that I accomplished that summer—how much better I felt about myself and how my outlook on life had changed—and I wonder if any of it would've been possible if I hadn't met Michael in the parking lot of Northwest Pool on that chilly, damp, April morning. I wonder how many other lives he touched before mine. I'm angry that his life was taken but thankful that I had had the opportunity to get to know him.

Later that summer I celebrated my 30th birthday, did two more triathlons, and started another hellish year of teaching. I tried to keep training that year but I ended up getting pneumonia twice. So, no triathlons in 2009. Or 2010.

In the fall of 2010, I started a new job and had made up my mind to have weight loss surgery. A lot of people might think that I started doing triathlons so I could lose weight; while that is certainly part of it, the reverse is true. I had the surgery and lost weight so I could do triathlons because, after I do a race, I feel like a badass. I don't care about ex-husbands or horrible bosses. Doing a triathlon makes me realize how much stronger I am than they will ever be.

I'm not the fastest runner, or cyclist, or swimmer, and I never will be. I'm okay with that (most of the time). I don't do it to win. I do it because it's hard and because I can. And if I can do a triathlon, or a half marathon, or a marathon, there is nothing else I can't do.

Oh, and on another note, a few weeks ago I was running on the trail by Lady Bird Lake and I saw my ex-husband. He didn't recognize me and that was awesome. I ran right on by.

How the Marathon Saved My Life
by Michael Cates

My name is Michael Cates. I am a father, husband, son, friend and cancer survivor.

In November 2011, I began preparing for the toughest battle of my life. I wanted to find something active to pursue and, after gathering support from my wife and best friend, Chase, I decided to sign up for the 2012 LiveStrong Austin Marathon. I’d recently recovered from an odd stomach pain and sudden weight loss, and I felt like my body was up to the challenge. Besides, as a native Texan, I was excited to get back to Austin, although I knew that training through the snow and ice in Chicago would prove to be a challenge all its own.
I trained all winter long, rarely missing a run, and on race day, I was down to about 175 pounds. At the time, I simply attributed my weight loss to the running I was doing. Once the race was over, I’d come to realize that it wasn’t the finish but the long months of training that was the most rewarding part. Even so, I decided I had earned a month of rest to heal and reflect on my accomplishment. To my surprise, though, my weight continued to drop after my training had ended. I thought that perhaps my marathon training had transformed my body into a calorie-destroying machine but as I began to shrink ever smaller and smaller, I knew that something was wrong.

As my month of rest was nearing its end, my stomach pain returned. On April 1, I was admitted into the hospital as I could not eat or sleep, and the pain was far greater than I could bear. Doctors told me I had a mass on my pancreas, which was causing acute pancreatitis. As they ran more tests, it became clear that something I had never imagined was lurking inside me.

On April 5, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. I finally understood that it was cancer that had been ravaging my body, shedding pound after pound. By the time I began chemotherapy, the cancer had metastasized from a softball-sized mass in my chest to my pancreas (causing the pancreatitis symptoms), stomach, lungs, and intestines. My treatment consisted of four months filled, along with the physical symptoms, with a roller coaster of emotions. It was the first sense of real urgency I’d ever had, as I became focused on fighting for my life rather than on the typical, more mundane worries of my everyday routine. As the treatments wore on, I dreaded the drugs entering my system and ripping my body to shreds.

In hindsight, I believe that my participation in the marathon was divinely inspired and not something of a coincidence. Had I not trained and prepared myself for such a difficult physical task, I do not know if I could have handled the monumental challenge of beating cancer.

The parallels I found in training for my marathon and fighting cancer were remarkable. My training program was four months long and when my doctors began talking about my cancer treatment regimen, they told me that I would have one every three weeks for a total of six treatments. Add that up and what do you get? Four months.
In both training for a marathon and fighting cancer, you can’t take a week off. You have to keep fighting to reach your goal, all while understanding that it’s possible that, even with the strongest perseverance, there is the chance you might not cross that finish line. Yet it is the belief in a strength that knows no limits that pushes you past the fear of the uncomfortable unknown and tips the scales in your favor.

I am currently training to run with Team LiveStrong in the 2013 LiveStrong Austin Marathon. The 2012 run helped provide me with the ammo I needed to be that much more capable to handle my war on cancer. I am running again because I want to save the lives of others and give them hope that they, too, can win this fight. I run so that my two beautiful daughters will have a father. I run to keep the cancer from returning. But if it does return, I run to ensure that I am in the best shape possible to fight again.
My advice to you: Have hope in the unknown and live STRONG.


Related Articles

Learn More