"It is never too late to be what you might have been." -- George Eliot
"At any point in your life that you decide to be a serious athlete, you can do it. -- Haywood Ellis
When my brother Peter dropped dead at 47, my mother the following year, and another brother Timothy, at age 45, the next year, I was at a loss to describe my loss. The pain was deep, yet it was as if I wasn't experiencing it. I went right on with my life, seemingly doing quite well despite the deaths. But my weight told the story. Within seven years, after having been a long distance runner, running 10 miles six days a week for most of my adult life, I became unrecognizable to myself, gaining nearly 95 pounds. One day passing a shop window I looked at the image looking back at me. She seemed slightly recognizable. There was something reminiscent about the half smile that once was quite broad. I saw her everyday in mirrors at home, but now in a quaint village shop window, she appeared more real. I didn't budge, willing her to live again.
From the moment I saw myself as I actually was -- much heavier and sadder -- I decided to do something about it. I couldn't change the past, but I could change the present. I began by changing my profile photo on my Facebook page from a head-shot to a full-body photo and began taking daily photos of myself and posting them. Posting that first full-body photo was one of the most difficult things that I had ever done. But, I soon realized that my journey was that of many others. I began receiving hundreds of friend requests weekly until I had nearly 5,000 friends. Within six months, I lost 60 pounds and each week that I hit my weight loss goal I rewarded myself with new workout gear. Within three more months, I lost 32 more pounds, losing a total of 92 pounds. Each post ended with a simple phrase, "Let's get it!!"
During this initial stage, I wore the skimpiest clothes. I could tell by the look on the faces of many at my legendary gym of champion bodybuilders what they were thinking. But, I didn't care. After avoiding looking at my image critically for so long, my attire was to remind myself daily of what I needed to do. The more fat I saw the more determined I was to lose weight. It worked conversely too. The more weight I lost the more encouraged I was to keep going. I worked out three hours a day. I did an hour of weightlifting in the early morning followed by an hour of intense cardio. In the evening I returned for another hour of intense cardio. My diet changed drastically too. I ate a low carb, high protein diet that consisted of six small meals throughout the day and I drank one gallon of water daily.
Recently, the legendary Ron Love, with whom I train, along with John Simmons, confirmed what I felt when I began. "You know," he said, "when you first came to this gym people were coming up to me asking me if you had a mirror. They wondered how anyone could come out of their house with such short shorts considering all the excess. I told them to just wait and see what you would do. I honored the work and confidence. And, you are doing it like no one I have ever seen and I've been in the sport for many, many decades." I thanked him and proposed, from that very moment on, to be even better. I would train to enter my first bodybuilding competition.
Excited about my decision to compete, I phoned my oldest brother Haywood. He is the third oldest of 12, and I am the youngest. He is the one who took me to the track every morning at the break of dawn when I was 12 and he was 28. It was the summer and I was on vacation, and he was trying out for the NFL open draft. As my mother was raising us alone, Haywood was more of a father figure. He taught us sports from track to basketball to rugby. He also taught us about diet. He always brought exotic foods into our home and I tried chocolate-covered ant for the first time when I was a teenager. It was more chocolate than ant, I assumed, but one bite was enough. When I told him about my plan to compete, he encouraged my goal as usual. He was still running five miles daily and was in excellent health. Because of the deaths of two brothers, he was even more careful about maintaining his health. He had just had his yearly checkup and told me that all was well. "You know, Judith," he said, "anytime you decide to be a serious athlete you can do it. I have always believed this about you."
My training became more intense, and I became a real beast, working out with my trainer six days a week, concentrating on a different muscle group daily, doing two hours of cardio in the morning and afternoon, and running four miles nightly. I felt invincible! Then, I got a call at about 4:30 in the morning. I knew when the phone rang at that hour that death was upon me once again. Before answering I asked aloud, "Which one now?" It was Haywood. He had awoken in the middle of the night, gotten out of bed, let out a scream, and dropped. It took two days for the doctors to diagnose that he had inoperable brain cancer. This news seemed to be more than I could bear. Haywood wasn't only my second father, he was my best friend. I got on the plane immediately and headed to Texas where he lived.
Watching him in the hospital, I feared that he wouldn't make it, and I felt myself internally slipping back into a lethargic state. I stayed with him for a week and when I returned home he would phone me. "You can do it!" he'd say. "All things are possible! Believe!" As usual, he wasn't thinking about himself, but about others. The last photo that I have of him he is walking around the track nearly unrecognizable, pumped with steroids with his diagnosis held high in his hand triumphantly. As an athlete, he knew how to fight and he was now fighting the biggest fight of his life. That day, he returned to the track, a place that always brought him peace, to symbolize that he would not let death cheat him as it had our two brothers before him. It did.
It hasn't yet been a year since Haywood's passing, and while I miss him everyday, I feel stronger, better able to cope with this loss. My physical strength has given me spiritual depth. My belief that all things are possible spurs me on and when I feel weakened by loss I remind myself that I have already achieved great strides in nine months which required more than physical strength. I look at myself in the mirror and remember the words of two people who I respect: "It is never too late to be what you might have been," wrote George Eliot and "At any point in your life that you decide to be a serious athlete, you can do it," said my beloved brother Haywood.
Wherever you are, whatever your goals, whatever you decide to do, all things are possible! Let's get it!