When I met Athena Chamblee in 2011, she didn’t even notice.
I was writing an anniversary story about Real Fitt, an appointment-only workout center Marla Cromartie had opened a year earlier on Brookside Drive. Athena was working out in Cromartie’s 6 a.m. Fitt Camp. I saw in her the “me” who hadn’t yet culled the motivation she had found to get moving. Quietly inspired, I began my fitness journey at Real Fitt, too; the one I told you about in January.
But Athena’s journey started earlier, months before her December 2007 gastric bypass surgery at Rex Hospital. Athena and her husband of 14 years, Will, scoured online and off to research weight-loss options.
“Our life was consumed,” she said.
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By then, Athena weighed 381 pounds. “There was no scale that would weigh me,” the 37-year-old said.
She chose gastric bypass, surgery that partitions the stomach and bypasses a portion of small intestine.
“It was something neither one of us had any experience with,” said Will, 39. “But I wanted to support her no matter what she decided. I knew, she knew, we both knew, it was going to be a long journey.”
When we sat down to chat last week, Athena weighed 194. That’s just 10 pounds shy of her doctor’s prediction and 14 shy of her goal. At her age, Athena’s body fat should be 33 percent. It’s 39 percent, Cromartie said.
“Based on American College of Sports Medicine standards, Athena scores in excellent shape,” she added, referring to her score on a recent assessment.
“My journey has been overwhelming, full of ups and downs, and great successes – with continued goals to meet,” said Athena, a soft-spoken powerhouse. “There’s a lot of fact-finding about yourself and your body, and how it works.”
The Centers for Disease Control says nearly 36 percent of us are obese. Our children follow suit. First lady Michelle Obama puts it center-stage, nationally. And the National Institutes of Health reminds us bariatric procedures rose 80,000 to more than 120,000 from 2002 to 2003.
But surgery isn’t a quick fix. All long-term weight loss requires a lifestyle commitment to diet and exercise to build muscle and rev metabolism.
“It’s a tool,” Athena said. “You’ve got to use it. I’m no different from someone who doesn’t have the surgery other than I can’t eat as much. I still have to do the same things to lose the weight.”
Athena chose Zumba and a trainer to help her lose weight. By the time she started Real Fitt’s Saturday Zumba class, she was 130 pounds lighter. She had also plateaued at 255. That led her to a routine of cross training-style camps and 5:30 a.m. personal training sessions combining cardio, core conditioning and strength training with Tia D. Williams, Real Fitt’s fitness director.
“What I’m working on now is forming my body, doing things to make it look like I want it to look,” said Athena, who also had to have nine pounds of skin removed from her arms and belly.
Last month, Athena and Team Real Fitt, including Cromartie, ran the City of Oaks half-marathon. She also helps teach Zumba and plans to start a beginners running group in January.
Athena also is a motivational speaker known as Athena the Warrior Princess: Fighting the Battle Within. Her first audience was a support group of the Bariatric Specialists of North Carolina, where she started her journey. The second was at Pittsboro’s Nappy by Nature natural hair meet-up.
At the meet-up, Athena also modeled, starting a long-dreamed of modeling portfolio recently completed by Jacob Lackerson of JHumble Photography.
“I’m so thankful,” Athena said of her journey. “My whole life has changed.”
But, Will noted, this thing is constant: “Athena’s personality has never changed,” he said. “She’s the same person I fell in love with and married.”