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Seated on a roller coaster, anxiously awaiting the start of the ride, Mike Epstein ’85 and his son anticipated the slow climb, the rapid descent, the wind in their faces and the flip-flops of their stomachs. Their anticipation evaporated as the ride attendant tried to lock the safety bar. It wouldn’t close. Mike, too big for the restraint, was asked to leave the ride. The long journey past all the passengers still waiting in line, Mike says, was “my walk of shame.”

As a student at Albright, Mike was a muscular defensive tackle for the Lions, a solid student and a member of the football fraternity, Zeta Omega Epsilon; in other words, your typical Big Man on Campus. Fast forward nearly 30 years to 2012 and the even bigger Mike Epstein: married to Nanci for 19 years, father of three growing children, co-owner of Conversion Technologies International, and a self-proclaimed food-a-holic weighing in at 417 pounds.

This year, his fame grew as his frame shrank. As a cast member on the ABC reality show “Extreme Weight Loss,” Mike took viewers on a year-long transformational journey that saw him lose more than half his body weight—221 pounds—with the help and guidance of the show’s host, fitness guru Chris Powell, and a team of doctors, nutritionists, trainers, therapists and others.

It was his love for his wife and kids that drove Mike to seek help. “The worst part of all was that I could not be active with my family,” he says. “I wasn’t able to do things with my kids. I was not the greatest husband because I didn’t feel confident
about myself. It affected all aspects of my life. I couldn’t go into a restaurant without getting nervous about being seated in a booth or a chair with armrests, because I didn’t fit in them… It takes energy to be morbidly obese because you have to
think about this stuff.”

Mike and the Epstein clan were ecstatic when he was selected to be on the show. But when he failed one of the preliminary medical tests, his journey to fitness almost ended before it started. Calcified arteries leading to his heart were discovered,
and the show’s doctor was unsure if the organ could withstand the extreme exercise regime. It was time to prepare himself and his family for the possibility that he might be going home.

“That’s when it clicked for me,” says Mike. “I couldn’t go home. If I went home, that’s what was going to define me for the rest of my life. I had to find a way to fight my way back onto the show.”

Fight he did. Mike passed additional testing, including an echocardiogram stress test, which ultimately convinced the doctor that he could be on “Extreme Weight Loss.” With this second chance, “Rocky,” as he came to be known on the show, was born.

“That’s really when this transformation began for me… I came to the realization that I did all this to myself and now it’s affecting my family,” Mike says.”At that point there was absolutely nothing that was going to be in my way of becoming the greatest transformation that [the show] had ever had.”

Mike set his goals high. He wanted to be Nanci’s “knight in shining armor” again. He wanted to be his kids’ superhero. The show gave Mike all the tools he needed to succeed: a therapist and trainer at home, workout sessions with Powell, boot camp in Arizona, and nutrition classes. Mike exercised for four hours every day, changed his eating habits and, with the help of his therapist, discovered the reason for his obesity: food was a comfort.

“Starting a new business, getting married, having kids—all brings pressure into your life,” says Mike. “It’s how you deal with pressure, and I turned to food for comfort. It calmed me down.”

Dealing with his father’s sudden death was one event that Mike “handled” with food. “My dad’s death from a car accident was so sudden and traumatic… I basically put up a wall because I didn’t want to have too many highs or too many lows,” he says. “I just had to be stable because I had a business and a family… I turned to food for comfort, and I built up this big wall of fat.”

On the way to his official 90-day weigh-in, Mike’s challenge was to run three miles with Powell across the Ben Franklin Bridge and up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps—Rocky-style—to where his family and the scale were waiting for him. His three-month weight-loss goal was 118 pounds. The scale read 119. The reward for reaching his goal was a seven-day Caribbean cruise with Nanci to take place after his six-month weigh-in.

During Phase II, Mike was to lose 55 pounds in 90 days and train like a fighter. This was the most difficult phase. “It’s the middle; no real beginning or end. This is where the mind transformation kicks in,” he says. “Every day I would wake up with

a purpose, an intention and a passion. That was my family. I woke up with a smile every day because I thought of my family. It became mental toughness— and remembering why I was doing this.”

Mike lost 58 pounds in Phase II, for a total of 177 pounds in six months. But before he and Nanci could leave on their cruise, Mike had one more challenge to complete—a boxing match. If he could last all 12 rounds with a professional boxer, he would be off to the Caribbean the next morning. Powell surprised Mike with an afternoon of training with former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Tapping into his “mind transformation,” Mike fought the good fight and was off to the Caribbean the next day … with, unbeknown to him, two broken ribs.

Mike’s next goal was to slim down to 199 pounds, a number he hadn’t seen on the scale since elementary school. He had 41 pounds to lose in three months, but the broken ribs were painful, hindering the intensity of his workouts. Mike lost only four pounds in the first 30 days. With 37 pounds to go, Mike knew he had to maximize his exercise program (which included hot yoga) if he was going to reach his target.

At the nine-month weigh-in, Mike weighed 197 pounds. He had lost nearly 53 percent of his starting weight, and his body fat was 10 percent, a number only body builders usually see. Powell called it the greatest physical transformation in nine months that he’s seen in his entire career. Skin removal surgery was Mike’s reward. A Beverly Hills plastic surgeon took off six square feet of skin from Mike’s body and reconstructed his chest and stomach. One thousand stiches later, Mike looked like a new man.

At the 12-month mark, Mike returned to Philadelphia for his last official weigh-in of the show.

He tipped the scales at 196 pounds—a total loss of 221 pounds.

Continuing to set new goals for himself, Mike has shifted his focus from weight loss to building muscle. Having bulked up since the show’s final weigh-in, his new normal weight is 225 pounds, a weight he last saw when he played football at Albright Today, Mike’s plans include hitting the motivational speaker circuit to “knock out obesity one person at a time.”

To anyone trying to lose weight, he says, “…our minds are too busy and we find reasons to fail…You need to learn to deal with your mind, and that is the biggest part of transformation of all. The rest will fall into place.”

And, he adds, “get up and move. It’s not just about weight loss; it’s about life. It’s about what makes you happy; weight loss is just a by-product of that.”

web-extra-iconTo learn more about Mike’s transformation, visit http://pickthepounds.com or facebook/EWL Mike Epstein.

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