How A 500-Pound Stranger Inspired Her To Get Off The Couch


First Posted: 10/10/2012 10:14 am Updated: 10/17/2012 11:29 am

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about one woman who found the inspiration she needed to get off the couch and get in the game, by watching a complete stranger fight to change his own life. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

With two children, a business and a house to keep up, like many women, Stephanie Schwartz had given up on finding time for herself. She even cancelled her gym membership when her first child was born, feeling guilty about taking as much as an hour away from her daughter. But nine years later, she found herself feeling kind of envious -- not of her single girlfriends or the moms who had time to play tennis, but of a man she’d never met.

“He weighed 500 pounds," Stephanie recalled, “and he was running through the desert, looking for his team on "The Biggest Loser". There I was on the couch eating potato chips, watching him, and I was jealous that he was doing something and I wasn’t -- that he’d found the inspiration to move and I didn’t have it.”

Stephanie wasn’t anywhere near 500 pounds. She did hope though to take about seventy off of her 5’3” frame. But this wasn’t even about the weight, it was about making the time to do something for herself. And this stranger, whose challenge was far bigger than her own, sparked a burning desire she didn’t even realize she had until that moment.

But Stephanie didn’t get up the next morning and go for a run. She did something far bigger. Despite the fact that she considered herself a “complete klutz” when it came to athletics, and that she had never ridden anything more than a little green bike with a flowered basket, she decided to train for a triathlon.

“I know it sounds crazy,” she laughed, “but back when I was in elementary school, when I was the last kid picked for anything in gym class, I had the biggest crush on this ten-year-old boy named Lee. He said he did triathlons and somehow it always stuck with me. I remember thinking, "Well, if he can do triathlons, I can too!" But, of course, I never did. I didn’t know the first thing about them. But, at that moment, as I watched this man on television, it all came back to me and I decided it was time.”

Stephanie found a local triathlon club and started training. She was pretty certain she had the swimming part down since that was the one sport she excelled at in high school. So she focused on running and biking. She began getting up at 5 AM to run through her neighborhood while her kids were still fast asleep and she went to the local bike shop, to buy her first real ride.

“There I was, surrounded by all these guys who live to bike. I was in regular street clothes rather than bike shorts which have padding, totally sweating as I tried out different bikes, but I wasn’t about to admit my girl parts were hurting. And then one of them suggested we go into the parking lot and give one a try. There was no way I was going to wipe out in front of all of them. So I took the bike home.

“You know how they say it’s just like riding a bike,” Stephanie said with a smile, “well, they never say anything about the stopping part. Once I got started, I didn’t know how to stop! I’d pedal, brake really hard and fall right over -- over and over. I ended up in the doctor’s office with an injured wrist. And to make matters worse, when I told the X-ray tech I put my bike down, he asked what kind of motorcycle I rode! And I had to tell him I just fell off my bike.”

Bandaged up, but not defeated, Stephanie went to YouTube for a quick tutorial and once she felt like she was race-ready, she began to tackle her next challenge, which wasn’t actually athletic, although it may have felt that way. It was a wardrobe issue. The swimming part of triathlons often takes place in open water, so she needed yet another piece of equipment -- a wetsuit.

“I am shorter and rounder than any athlete should be,” she explained, “and wetsuits are built for normal athletes. But I found a website that sold suits for bigger women and ordered one. It arrived with all kinds of directions. You had to wear gloves when you were putting it on so you wouldn’t put holes in it. So there I was in the bathroom with mittens on and a fan blowing, because it’s hot here in Phoenix, struggling to get this thing on. I got one leg in, up to the knee and the other one, up to the calf. Nothing I did was going to get this thing past my hips.”

As Stephanie maneuvered in the bathroom, her husband sat helpless outside, knowing after thirteen years of marriage, he was simply better off not saying a word. And while her girlfriends offered to come over and help, she was determined to do this by herself.

“Once I got it on, I texted the picture to my friends and said ‘I’ll meet you at the lake for practice on Tuesday’. It was only Thursday, but I had no intention of ever taking it off!”

While many other women would have waited until they lost some of the weight, Stephanie was determined to keep moving forward. Even if it meant getting to the lake an hour ahead of everyone else, to get that wetsuit on.

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  • In Training

    It took a complete stranger on "The Biggest Loser" to inspire Stephanie Schwartz to get off the couch. But, instead of simply signing up for a gym membership, she decided to train for a triathlon. Here, she runs a relay competition with a team, while training for her first triathlon.

  • First Triathlon

    After months of training, in March 2012, Stephanie competed in her first-ever triathlon. Here, she shows off her race number before the event.

  • First 5K

    Part of Stephanie's training involved smaller races, like this 5K run on Thanksgiving Day in 2011. Here, she is gearing up to head out at the starting line with hundreds of others.

  • Finishing The Race

    Here, Stephanie strides through the finish line of her first 5K, putting her one step closer to her goal of finishing a full triathlon.

  • The Wetsuit

    Because the swimming portion of most triathlons happen in open water, Stephanie had to learn how to get in and out of her wetsuit, and quickly. In fact, the first time she tried, it was such a struggled that she snapped this picture and sent it out to her girlfriends to show them that she had succeeded.

  • Pre-Race Practice

    Getting into her wetsuit wasn't the only thing Stephanie practiced at home before being put to the test on race-day. Here, she sets up her transition station at home, just to be sure that she has it down for her first triathlon.

  • Marking Her Station

    Stephanie wasn't going to waste any time changing between events during her first triathlon. So, she decided to tie a huge dolphin balloon to her station so that she would know, right away, where she had left her things.

  • After The Race

    She may have been organized before the race, but after running, biking and swimming her first triathlon, Stephanie's transition station was a bit of a mess. Here, a look at her area after she finished the race.

  • Decorated Triathlete

    Here, Stephanie poses with her tri-buddy, Andrea Barron. This was taken just after Stephanie's first race with their finisher medals.

  • Seasoned Bicyclist

    She may have had some trouble staying on her bike at first, but once Stephanie got the hang of it she couldn't be stopped. Here, she is biking in a race for the Special Olympics. She and her teammates, one of whom was a Special Olympian, completed the triathlon as a relay.

  • Finishing The Swim

    Since she finished her first triathlon in March, Stephanie has competed in four others. Here, she runs out of the water, on her way to her transition station, at one of her more recent races.

  • Stephanie & Grandmother

    Here, Stephanie poses with her grandmother, June First. At 91 years old, June First still gets out for a walk every day, making her one of Stephanie's sources of inspiration.

  • Family Support

    Of course, Stephanie's kids were there to support their mom at her first triathlon. Here, Macy, left, and Hayden, right, pose for a picture with Stephanie just before the race.

  • Ziplining

    There's no doubt Stephanie's husband, Craig, was a huge source of encouragement and support throughout her journey to becoming a successful triathlete. Here, the couple takes a break from their ziplining adventure in Hawaii to snap a picture.

  • Always Seeking Adventure

    Even when she was younger, Stephanie was always up for a new adventure. Here, she poses with a friend from college, Michelle Medved-Dees, while on a repelling trip.

  • Young Athlete

    The one sport Stephanie loved as a kid was swimming. Here she is at about 11 years old, doing the backstroke with ease.


“For the longest time I said when I get the weight off I’ll wear a bikini, I’ll wear short skirts, I’ll go dancing. And then I lost 50 pounds. And I did all that. For the first time I wasn’t embarrassed to eat an ice cream cone in public. But I loved doing that so much, that I put the weight back on. That was a lesson in itself. Weight loss and weight gain is fleeting. I can get the weight off again, but I may be at the half way point of my life right now and I didn’t want to wait any longer.”

So five months from the time she got off the couch, Stephanie was at the starting line of her very first sprint triathlon.

“It was so nerve racking,” Stephanie remembered. “There were 250 women all lined up and a lot of them had ironman logos tattooed on their calves. But the first event was swimming and the minute I saw a woman doing the back stroke, I knew there was at least someone I could take!”

And while Stephanie may not have had the experience of the other athletes, she did have the foresight to think ahead. As she pulled herself out of the water, she raced towards a sea of bikes. While others lost valuable time searching for theirs, Stephanie had tied a giant dolphin balloon to the rack where she had left her bike hours earlier. Minutes later, she was off and riding.

“I needed every second I could get because I knew that bike was still not my friend. By the time I got to the second cycling lap, I just wanted someone to save me.”

But eight miles later, Stephanie jumped off the bike and began running the race of her life. With only 3.2 miles left, she was on her way to the dream that began when she was just ten years old and was reignited by a stranger on television, who was running to save his own.

“As I crossed over the finish line,” Stephanie said proudly, “and passed under the arch of pink and white balloons, I heard my name and it hit me. 'I’m an athlete, a triathlete.' During that first race, all I wanted to do was finish. I didn’t care about time. But now I want to be the fastest in my group.

And she’s well on her way. Since her first triathlon in March, Stephanie has done four more and recently placed third among her peer group in running, second in biking and took first place in the water.

“I have a magnet on my car that says Tri. It means I’ve done it and I’m going to do it again. And it’s a reminder, that if I’m not out there trying, it’s not going to happen.

“Don’t wait. Not until you get the weight off, not until you have more time. You don’t want to look back ten years from now and wonder why you didn’t try.”


To keep up with Stephanie, you can follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/stephanie.smithschwartz

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