How To Go From 250lbs To Gold Medalist

never too late
One of the great things about working at Zibrio is the opportunity to meet inspiring people. If you haven’t yet heard of DeEtte Sauer, you haven’t been paying attention.

She’s a two time gold medalist in the National Senior Games, getting up every day at 4.30am to swim at her local club, where, at 76, she’s 12 years older than the other ‘senior’ swimmers in her team.

Yet what is really inspiring about her, even more than her enthusiasm and current fitness, is the story of how she got here. She wasn’t always fit, in fact for most of her life she was overweight, drank heavily, smoked and engaged in little or no exercise. As she puts it, if she’d continued like that, she’d be dead by now.

Over a period of months she managed to give up smoking and drinking. The following year she stepped away from her obsession with her stressful career, and that’s when the real weight began to pile on. By the time she was 46, she weighed 250lbs, unable to join in the fun on family holidays, unable to wear anything except huge tent-like dresses that she pretended camouflaged the now desperate state of her health.

One day, the fantasy came crashing down

She had to do something. Her cholesterol was out of control, her blood pressure was high, she didn’t have the balance or strength to climb into a boat on the lake where they were vacationing. This was the final straw in a realization that had been building over a few months.

She began studying nutrition and changed her family’s diet from fried, sugary foods (“I used to eat two apple fritters while doing the grocery shopping!” she says), to healthy options.

She buddied with a friend, and together they walked every day, kept each other accountable with good eating. Surprisingly, she said, the weight began to drop off quite quickly, and that was adrenalizing. “I felt fabulous”. The big payoff came when she was shopping with friends in a ‘normal’ (not plus sized) store and discovered that she could fit into a size 14 pair of jeans. It was an emotional moment, and one that spurred her to continue.

Soon, she’d joined a gym to gain upper body strength, and when that started to get a bit boring, she spotted a flyer for a new masters swim team.

“I had watched my daughters swim, so I figured I could do it too,” she said.

The first class almost dashed her hopes, she couldn’t even swim 25 yards. On the point of giving up and feeling embarrassed, she was shocked when the young 22 year old coach said the life-changing words: “Stop your whining and do as I say. You can do this, just do what I tell you!”

From Fear to Inspiration

After 3 months, the coach had signed her up for her first competition, which was terrifying. “I was afraid of embarrassing myself,” she remembers. “But when I got there, I became inspired by Jesse Coons – a 92 year old doing butterfly. After that I knew I had to have a go.”

She has never looked back, and at the 2017 Senior Games in Alabama, she found added meaning when waiting to go up to the podium and collect her gold medal – a bucket list item. She was approached by a couple in their mid 40’s who had driven especially to meet her. “We saw your story on CBS and it inspired us. We were also killing ourselves with our unhealthy lifestyles, and thanks to you, we have changed and we are so happy.” Their words made her personal triumph all the sweeter.

DeEtte, for all her energy and positive outlook is only human. There are days when she’s tempted to gorge on double chocolate cakes, or sleep through her alarm. But she likes herself better as this healthy person. She tells herself she can go down to the pool and have an easy session. That gets her out of the door. And when she reaches the pool, her team mates and coach will push her and support her and she’ll feel great afterwards.

“If I didn’t go, I’d miss it,” she says. “We start every day laughing.”

And as for the chocolate binge, she likes her new discipline, feels that with it she is no longer hiding herself, she can be who she really is.

When she’s not travelling as an athlete, DeEtte and her husband tutor middle school kids who need extra help with their school work. I suspect that’s also part of the reason for her energetic and youthful outlook on life.

Medals Are Only For The Young

Young athletes get sick of hearing how short is the window for sporting excellence, and how they have to make sure they have a sensible career plan to fall back on.They may take heart then, at the 12,000 athletes over 50 years old who took part in the Senior Games this year in Minnesota. One of them was Houstonian Emma Lou ‘Scottie’ Scott. Now 81, Scottie has competed in most of the Games since 1991 when she became eligible (initially the lower age limit was 55).

It’s not about the medals

Scottie is a lifelong sports enthusiast. She started competing in volleyball at high school, won a scholarship to gain her degree in Physical Education at Sam Houston State college, and has never looked back. 

She has taught girls volleyball, basketball, badminton, tennis, swimming, archery, modern dance (which used to be part of the Physical Education curriculum for girls). She was part of the iconic group who played pick-up games at the famous Fonde Rec in Houston, showing up for practise twice a week, somehow finding the energy to do so after long days teaching up to 300 students, and coaching 30 in volleyball. 

hall of fameHer house is a shrine to sports and her sporting heroines. There is a box of medals from the Senior Games – national and regional competitions that she keeps in the hall (the rest of some 300 awards, including several from a number of Gay Games, hang off furniture or are under the bed). She was inducted into the Texas Senior Games Hall of Fame in 2007. 

The walls of the rooms are covered in signed photographs of famous players, including Kim Perrot of the Houston Comets Women’s Basketball team, and signed baseball cards from the original players in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League (the inspiration for the film A League of their Own), with whom she also met.

The biggest change that she has welcomed in the world of sport is the opening of opportunity for female athletes brought about by Title IX legislation of 1972. At first it was hard to get her school students to participate in sports like basketball, so she switched to the sports that were popular with women at the time: volleyball and swimming.

Retirement means go up a gear

Once she retired, she knew she couldn’t just sit on her porch and watch the world go by. She signed up for the Senior Games immediately, qualifying that first year in Badminton, Discus, Shot-put, and Javelin in a week of competing events around Houston. When she reached the Nationals that year, however, she realised that there was no time to compete in all the sports in which she had qualified, and chose to concentrate instead on singles and doubles badminton. It has remained her passion ever since. When asked what keeps her going, she said she loves the different parts of the game, the mental as well as physical aspects of playing. And she enjoys the company of other athletes.

Find something you enjoy,” she counsels. Then just get out there and do it. “Above all, stay involved.”

Doctors have advised her that she’d benefit from both knee and hip replacement surgery, but she is putting it off as long as possible, knowing that it will compromise her mobility in the short term and admitting that her life is too busy right at the moment.

When not playing or competing, she works with an Angel Flight network who drive cancer patients from airports to their accommodation; has been a vocal advocate for mammograms for lesbians, supports her partner on the board of the Texas Ramblin’ Roses (a group of women RV enthusiasts), and is involved in the community group LOAF (Lesbians over age 50). And then if there is any time left over, there is her beloved dog – a Scottie, appropriately.


People Who Inspire Us #1

Charlie is 67. A former military and commercial pilot, he confesses he still loves adrenaline sports. We met when iShoe conducted some balance testing in the community.

“I stay healthy because I want to keep snow skiing and scuba diving. Fitness is important to me,” he told me in the humid heat that was already building in central Houston.
 Dressed in workout clothes and a cap, fresh from a recent yoga class, he bristles with energy, his eyes alive and twinkling as we ask him to repeat the shot, try a different angle, speak to the camera.
 He was a high school athlete, a member of the relay team that broke a record. And although, like most of us, sport didn’t develop into a career for him, unlike most of us, he never slowed down either.
 He credits some of his dedication to staying in shape to his experience in the military, and then to the six-monthly physicals he had to undergo as a commercial airline pilot, but for the most part he lives by his mantra that to be a useful member of society he believes in being strong physically, mentally and financially.
 “What kind of a role model would I be to my son if I sat around all day and couldn’t do anything any more?” he asks. He still goes running with his son, who, in his 30s, doesn’t finish far ahead of his father, even now.
 But even Charlie, with his weight lifting regime and sprinting fitness, which are evident in his lean, muscled physique, has had to adapt some of his training as the years have passed. He still trains hard, but not every day, taking rest days so his body can recover.
 He has also realised recently that while he is strong, he is not flexible, so he started following his wife into her yoga class, an exercise he admits to finding difficult. He keeps at it because he’s determined to improve his flexibility, and reduce his risk of injury.
 “You gotta keep active,” he says. “I feel strongly about this. People need to do more, to keep themselves healthy and independent.”
 His energy and enthusiasm are infectious.  After our filming stops and we say our goodbyes, I find myself setting tougher targets for my own fitness. And going some way to achieving them too.