A glowing, beaming, small brunette woman stands before me, adjusting a spinning bike towards the window so I can let natural light shed on her. I am taking her photo because I’ve heard her story: once an obesity sufferer, she is now a Team USA qualified duathlete in the 2017 Penticton World Championships Festival in British Columbia. She starts to tell me about her life, but I don’t completely hear her because I am focused on capturing her happiness. I want the camera to do her justice. Though casual, she seems to spin and speak with a purpose – she is a woman who has found her stride and her worth.

Finally, sitting across from me, I am able to take in her personality and her story. She holds out a smart phone to show me a photo she rarely shows anyone. I cannot believe the woman on the phone and the woman sitting before me are the same person.  At her heaviest, Kimee weighed an astonishing 400 lbs. In front of me sits an athlete with defined arms and sparkling eyes that cannot be more than 140 lbs.

“I am smaller now than I was in high school,” she explains. “I had to lose 75 lbs to get into the military – twice. I gained weight during my pregnancies. I, and everyone else, used my pregnancy as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted.” Weight struggles were all she had ever known.

Kimee served in the Navy for thirteen years as a nurse. (She now works for Memorial.) By the time she was stationed in the Middle East for the Persian Gulf War, women’s uniforms no longer fit her. She had no other option than to wear men’s pants and women’s tops. The closures would go in opposite directions, confirming her struggle to anyone who noticed.

During her first pregnancy, her shoes didn’t fit.  She wore flip flops to the hospital. After the baby was born, she was forced to send him home with his grandparents for four weeks so she could again focus on losing 75 lbs in time for reenlistment. She succeeded, but she gained it back, hovering around 280 lbs. By the time she left the Navy, she was down to 200 lbs.

After Kimee retired from the military, she had two more children with her husband. Each child also carried with it another lesson in weight gain. After the second child, she was so down on herself that her doctors placed her on an antidepressant and told her just to write down everything she ate. She hated how the medicine made her feel and threw it out! After her third child, she found herself at her largest, larger than she had ever imagined. She fell into a deep depression, but reminded herself that her family loved her. “It’s okay,” she would tell herself, but she cried all the time, especially when no one was around.

She knew she had to change.

She visited a gym, and the first thing the salesman said was, “Guess you’re here to lose weight.” She walked out, and continued the gym search.

She eventually joined a kinder club and started walking every day at Lincoln Park. At first, she could only walk one quarter of the way around the park – not even a half mile! She would jog a little, and eventually challenged herself to walk down the “big hill” knowing the only way back was up!

She vividly remembers one of those earlier walks, sitting on a bench in the park holding her infant daughter. As she struggled to get up off the bench, her foot was caught in a root and she fell forward!  She quickly twisted her body to save her daughter from injury.  She laid on the ground, holding her daughter to her chest, and looked up. A policeman looked right at them and continued to drive without stopping to help.

That’s when she knew she would have to pick herself up.

And now, a Team USA qualified duathlon athlete in the Penticton 2017 ITU Multisport World Championships Festival sits across the table from me. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s syndrome (less salvation than the average person in the eyes and mouth), and deals with respiratory distress.  Despite these conditions, she has completed two Iron Man races and countless other triathlons, duathlons, marathons, and more. Her doctors are shocked that she can compete at the level she does with her medical history. Her secret is simple: you will have good days and bad days, but just keep showing up. That’s what Kimee did, and one day, through hard work, consistency, desire, and determination, she woke up an elite athlete.

The road to the 2017 Penticton was not straight and narrow. Above and beyond what she has overcome to get into fighting shape, she also has had to stay mentally strong. Her first attempt at qualification in Oregon ended up with a missed transition, an attempt to make up time, and a twister torn transition area. Due to the weather and a miscommunication on the race path, she did not qualify, but as fate would have it, she found herself sitting next to that year’s World Duathlon Champion in the airport on the way home. The humble Kirsten Sass encouraged her to try again and shared with her the date for another qualifying race in New Orleans that she would be entering.

Upon further research, Kimee realized the date of the race was the day after an Iron Man she had committed to in Florida. Not one to miss an opportunity or to let herself down, Kimee raced that Iron Man and beat her PR by two hours. She then jumped in the car with her husband at 10:05 p.m. after racing 140.6 miles and arrived in New Orleans at 3 a.m., gaining an hour. She slept for three hours and raced the duathlon sprint at 7:15 in the morning, coming in 9th place. She had to come in a specific percentage behind the leader to qualify. She made it by 42 seconds.

Racing has taken on a larger meaning than weight loss for Kimee. It gives her a goal to work towards and ensures that she doesn’t get too comfortable with her exercise routine or eating habits. “One cookie is fine – 35 is not!” She is at the Y every day at 5 a.m. and in bed every night at 8 p.m. It is the best schedule to train and still get to spend time with her kids.

Kimee decided to join the Y because the Kerasotes facility is close to work and a lot of her running friends joined around the same time. She loves (and needs) the competition pool for training and is a regular in spin classes. She appreciates all the Y has to offer. We have the amenities she requires, and she has never had a problem. “Everyone here is very nice! My son even works here now!”

Her son now joins her workouts because he also has goals to join the military. He cannot leave basic training to witness her duathlon competition in August, but they will Facebook Live it for him.  She also has plans to attempt requalification in 2018. A seasoned exerciser, she helps other members out and shows new ones the ropes.  She even inspired her once non-exercising sister to run a 5k! Now they are signed up to run the Diva Half Marathon in Chicago together.

The most special relationship her racing has touched though, is her relationship with her father. He passed away two years ago but reminds her at every race that he is right there by her side. Each event Kimee runs, a dragon fly will land on her, even if just for a moment. Upon the admission of the dragonfly visits, her mother joked, “He should have made a better entrance than that!”  Her father was known for his boisterous personality.  Minutes later, they walked out the front door of her mother’s home to swarm of thousands of migrating dragonflies in the yard. Thanks to good friends, a dragonfly graphic will adorn her helmet on race day – which incidentally is also her father’s birthday.

Moved, I asked her what her favorite part of this journey has been. “Being happy,” she said. “Very rarely do people see me without a smile on my face. My kids know I’m happy now.”

By, Jennifer