Fitness Fighters

Five People Who Faced Health and Fitness Challenges—and Succeeded Against the Odds

Their determination can inspire anyone ready to make a change.

December 31, 2019 Published in the January 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine

 Many of us start the new year with a promise to take better care of ourselves, physically and mentally. But we all know that, no matter how good our intentions, there can be backsliding along the way.

Take heart from the people we interviewed here, who kept their promises to themselves and changed their lives for the better. Each had different motivations for getting to the gym or into the water, and different methods of meeting their goals once there—but their determination can inspire anyone ready to make a change.

LaDon Sims

Image: Everett Dennison 

LaDon Sims: Making the Jump

Occupational therapist LaDon Sims, 48, has lost 85 to 90 pounds since she began showing up at The Pink Powerhouse, an all-female training and cycling studio in Bradenton, in May 2018. But she says getting out of bed before 5 a.m. three to five days a week for sessions ranging from 45 to more than 90 minutes was never about shedding weight. “I wanted to feel better,” she says. “I was on a mission.” Circuit training, combining cardio workouts and weights, was key for her, building strength both for work, which can involve lifting patients, and at home. “When I started, I needed help picking up a case of water at Walmart,” she says. “Now I just lift that over my shoulder.” Beyond the workouts, she enrolled in a 12-week program of nutrition classes that taught her “how to combine this protein with this carb,” she says. She gave up sodas and says, “I don’t have a box of Cheez-Its at lunch anymore, but I won’t lie, I still love macaroni and cheese.” The moment she realized how far she’s come took place during a jump roping session. “I hadn’t jumped since I had my [16-year-old] twins,” she says. “I couldn’t do it. But that day, I jumped. It made me cry.” Kay Kipling

Rick Walker

Rick Walker: In the Swim After Surgery

“A lot of swimmers swim with shoulder pain,” says Rick Walker, 69, a longtime coach and competitor with the Sarasota Sharks Masters swim team. Walker, who started competing in masters swimming in 1985, had come to accept his shoulder pain as a given, until an injury from a fall forced him to face rotator cuff surgery in December 2017. “It was either get it fixed or I could be looking at a shoulder replacement down the road,” he says. “And if I went that route, there wouldn’t be any more swimming.”

Walker went from swimming six days a week to staying out of the pool for three months. His first swims post-surgery were done one-handed. Bit by bit, he found his stroke again. “You’re god-awful slow the first few times,” he says. “But then each day you can see your progress.” It was nine months before he competed again, and a full year before he raced in a freestyle event.

These days, Walker is back on the deck for Sharks practice at 4:45 a.m. and swims his own hourlong workout at 10:15, swimming between 3,000 and 4,000 meters.  “Now, I have no pain,” he says. “Next year, I’ll be swimming as a 70-year-old, so there are new fields to conquer and new records to break.” –Hannah Wallace

Colby Siljestrom

Colby Siljestrom: Working with a Pro

Two years ago, Colby Siljestrom headed to California to surf with his buddies. Born in Maui to a dad who surfed big waves, the younger Siljestrom had been paddling his own board since he was 4 and competed internationally on the surf team at Florida State University. But on this trip, he couldn’t keep up. “I distinctly remember paddling out and coming back exhausted after catching four or five waves,” he says. He wasn’t completely surprised. He was spending long hours running Sleuth Inc., a statewide leak detection company, and the sedentary lifestyle, stress and being a young dad had turned the 6-foot, 2-inch surfer-athlete soft. He was 245 pounds, a 75-pound weight gain from college, and his blood pressure and cholesterol were too high. Then his mother got him 10 workouts with fitness trainer Won Huh at the Sarasota YMCA as a Christmas gift. “I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m going to do this,” he says. Siljestrom, now 32, works out twice a week with Huh doing a variety of cross training exercises, weights and cardio and another three days on his own. Having a trainer, he says, has kept him disciplined for two years. “The accountability was the most important part of my weight loss,” he says. “Right now, I’m about 188 pounds and I’ve changed my lifestyle. I do more outdoors. I didn’t want my sons to grow up with a father who couldn’t play sports with them.” —Susan Burns

Jackie Mori

Jackie Mori: Paddling for Power

At 58, Jackie Mori says she’s in the best shape of her life, and it’s all because she “got bit by the dragon.”

Mori has always been active and fit. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and began undergoing chemo, she still pushed herself to exercise. “I was going to spin class with a bald head,” she says.

Years later, when she joined Survivors in Sync, a dragon boat racing team made up of women who have survived breast cancer, she found that paddling challenged her in ways no workout had before. “You think it’s just arm strength, but it’s quite the opposite,” Mori says. “You’re using your legs and your core. It’s a full-body workout.”

Her teammates push her, too. “Not only do you want to be better for yourself,” she says, “but your teammates depend on you.” Mori trains with her team on the water three times a week and works out another two times a week. Survivors in Sync is currently preparing to compete in a dragon boat world championship taking place in August in Aix-les-Bains, France.

Mori says she’s stronger and more energetic now than at any point in her life. Paddling brings mental as well as physical benefits. “When you’re on the water,” she says, “you don’t think about what you’ve gone through.” —Cooper Levey-Baker

Kevin Dunlavey

Kevin Dunlavey: Cycle Solution

In 2010, at age 45, Kevin Dunlavey weighed 230 pounds, drank heavily, and rarely went to sleep before 2 a.m. After being pulled over twice in one week for speeding, Dunlavey, an Army veteran, felt he was nearing disaster. He quit drinking cold turkey. Then, in 2012, his father suggested cycling

At first, Dunlavey rode his hybrid bike 20 miles or so at a time on the Legacy Trail, a handlebar-mounted speaker blaring Slayer and Iron Maiden. He bought a road bike and his trips got longer. In 2016, he signed up for the 100-mile Cyclefest in Lakewood Ranch, then looked up an eight-week training regimen in Bicycle magazine. “All I wanted to do was finish,” he says. He made it in six hours, 45 minutes, and fell in love with the experience, “meeting new people, checking out their bikes, seeing new places,” he says.

Today, Dunlavey has lost 25 pounds and bikes at least 100 miles a week, sometimes riding from downtown Bradenton to northernmost Anna Maria Island to South Lido Beach and back. In October 2019, he finished the Withlacoochee 100—his 10th 100-mile event—in a personal-best five hours, 49 minutes. His total distance ridden in 2019 was 4,579 miles.

Up next: A 200-mile solo ride. “Sometimes being alone is good,” he says. “Time to think or just blast some music.” —Hannah Wallace

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