Sue Recchia, former fat person, doesn’t do half measures.
Today, she’s an extreme loser. But before that, she was an extreme gainer.
“With me, it’s all-or-nothing,” she says.
At her heaviest, she estimates she weighed about 425 pounds. She got there via family-sized bags of Doritos and mountains of candy. She ate, she says, like they were going to stop making food.
“On a Sunday afternoon, I’d buy a big bag of Hershey’s miniatures, eat the whole thing and pass out in a carb coma,” she said. “There was a lot of the stuffing down of emotions, of stuffing myself to avoid emotions.”
Even her weight loss strategies over the years — and there were plenty — veered toward the drastic.
For months, she drank nothing but diet shakes or ate processed meal replacements, but each time gained back every lost pound and added more.
Even gastric bypass surgery didn’t work for long. She dropped to 220 pounds, but gained back 80.
“I had a job with a lot of responsibility,” said Recchia, who is the administrator for a law firm. “Losing weight seemed like one more thing I had to do.”
Nothing worked until her mother, dying of ovarian cancer, issued her daughter a warning and a plea: “I’m not going through all this to have you die before me.”
That was the message that finally penetrated. Yet, it still took Recchia a few months after her mother’s death to find the courage to walk into Jared Lopez’ Lake Park gym called Palm Beach County Boot Camp, in Lake Park, Florida.
“People expected so much of me. I worried about how much more are they going to expect of me when I don’t have the fat excuse anymore,” she said.
She’d belonged to plenty of gyms and hired trainers before. But there was something different about Lopez, 37, a warm and friendly man who insists his gym clients are family. Photos on his office wall reveal his own struggle to lose 60 pounds.
Recchia said, “I could tell that man understood my head.”
At 284 pounds, she signed up for the gym’s first “obesity challenge.”
“I could tell she was a little crazy,” said Lopez. “And that she was a fighter.”
Among the goals the Greenacres resident wrote down that day was to be “physically able to do what I want” and to be “sexy at sixty.”
At first, the work outs seemed impossible, especially when Lopez told her she would need visit the gym six days a week. When he said she’d also have to walk 30 minutes every morning, she cried.
“I said, ‘I don’t have time for this in my life,’” Recchia, 59, said.
But she set her alarm a half hour earlier.
She lost 12 pounds the first week.
Eventually, she found that the intensity of boot camp workouts suited her. Moderation isn’t her style.
In 10 months she dropped 130 pounds, meeting both of her goals a year early.
She’s sexy before sixty.
Now, she wants to pass on what she’s learned.
In September, she and Lopez are beginning a free program for the morbidly obese.
Armed with an online personal trainer certification, Recchia hopes to show other fat people what it took most of her life to learn.
“I’ll tell my story,” says Recchia, who today weighs about 170 and plans to drop below 160. “I don’t want to sugarcoat it. I want them to know its hard but its worth it.”
“Morbid obesity,” she says, “is not a life sentence.”
But at one point, it seemed to be for Recchia.
Long before she and her security guard husband, Steve, moved down from Rochester, N.Y, Recchia had been riding a roller coaster of false dieting starts and dashed weight loss hopes, while trying to accommodate the weight overwhelming her.
She circled parking lots looking for a spot close to a door, where she wouldn’t have to walk far or step up on a curb. Her size 32 pants, designed for a 52-inch waist, were the largest available at Lane Bryant or Avenue, where she purchased tailored, brightly-colored clothes.
“I never wore all black, though,” she says. “It’s not like anyone looking at me in black would say, ‘Isn’t she skinny?’ Instead, I wore what I liked.”
Self-confidence has never been Recchia’s problem, but self-esteem? That was something else. She hid its lack with feistiness.
“I am assertive, not combative,” she says. “My mother raised me to be a strong, capable woman.”
She had to be. Being fat is difficult.
Flying meant a seat belt extension and apologies as her bulk flowed into the seats next to her. If she and Steve went out to dinner, “I had to worry that they’d have a chair to hold me,” she said.
She rarely ate in public, anyway. Too much judgmental scrutiny.
“People feel like they can say anything to fat people,” she said.
The Palm Beach Post wrote about Recchia in 2000. At the time, she weighed 305 pounds and was training to walk the Disney half-marathon.
Despite her weight and yo-yo dieting, Recchia says she did not have obesity-related health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
“I was the healthiest fat person you’d ever seen,” she says.
Today, she’s just healthy.
Thunk, thunk, thunk.
Two years ago, Recchia could barely walk. Today her pink boxing gloves slam into a punching bag in the noisy, colorful gym.
On the chalkboard, the workout of the day is named “Sue Strong” because that’s what she’s become.
“I’ve seen her lift more than 20-year-olds,” says Lopez.
She’s settling back into her gym routine after recovering from a prophylactic mastectomy this summer, with breast reconstruction created from her excess abdominal skin. She’s also had about 6-inches of loose skin removed from each arm.
Recchia swings a kettleball 50 times. Does 50 sit-ups holding a weighted plate. There are lunges, squats, box jumps, shoulder raises. Her short blond hair drips with sweat. Her upper body is tiny in her black tank top, her muscles tight.
She eats a regimented diet with an occasional cheat. She doesn’t keep sweets, her trigger foods, in the house.
Each morning, she makes three protein shakes, one each for breakfast, a mid-morning snack and an afternoon snack. Lunch at a restaurant is an appetizer portion. Dinner is salad with protein. She keeps a supply of 10-calorie bags of microwave popcorn for emergency snacks. Her rare indulgence is an Applebee’s chocolate lava cake.
She wears skinny jeans and pretty size 10 dresses that she buys anywhere she feels like shopping. On a cruise, she went ziplining and rode a Segway. She gave away dozens of pairs of shoes when her foot went from a size 9 to a 7 1/2. Even her desk chair became too big as she got smaller.
“I am finally the person I always saw in my head,” she says. “I was always the skinny girl trapped inside the fat person.”