Was it an angel riding a bicycle?
Sue Reynolds never will know for sure, but it certainly could have been some sort of benevolent celestial being sent by the Almighty to help her down the path toward a real world miracle.
It was three years ago when Reynolds would labor along the People Trail in Columbus, pushing her 300-pound body to its maximum with the hope of finding a healthier life.
It was a lonely battle, one that threatened to consume and defeat her. But at those moments, the angel would go riding past.
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“It was this one woman who was a bike rider,” Reynolds said. “And every time she passed me, she would say, ‘You are looking really good.’
“That’s where the kindness comes in. I really felt like God was courting me. All this started happening to me, with people being so kind at just the right moment. It seemed that someone always had something nice to say.
“You know, it just takes two seconds, but you can change someone’s whole life. I never knew that woman’s name, and she never will know what she did for me.”
Two years ago, Reynolds and her family moved to Bloomington to be closer to their boat on Lake Monroe. Now 61, Reynolds returns to Columbus, where she lived on Chestnut Street from 1979 through 2012, but most people don’t recognize her.
That’s OK with Reynolds, who weighed 335 pounds three years ago when an unsuccessful attempt to tie her shoes pushed her into a different lifestyle. The current Reynolds weighs 141 pounds on her 5-foot-7 frame and is one of the nation’s top triathletes in the 60-64 women’s age group.
“Every day now I do something that I couldn’t have done three years ago,” Reynolds said. “I can run up the stairs because I don’t have a disability anymore. I can buy clothes at a regular store.
“When I finally got to the point where I no longer was overweight, I didn’t know who I was. It seemed like I had been on a diet forever. I was lost, and now I’m an athlete. The hard part was thinking of myself as an athlete.”
Her story begins as a young girl growing up in Michigan without any significant weight difficulties. However, she grew up before Title IX changed the opportunities for girls to be athletes in school, so she didn’t pursue sports.
After getting her college degree at DePauw, and marrying her husband, Brian, and starting a family, she began to gain weight, a little at a time.
“I didn’t have boundaries with food,” she said. “I ate for any reason and eating was part of everything I did. I had no reason to worry about nutrition.”
Ironically, Reynolds coached “just about every sport” as she became a teacher after college and spent time working at Southwestern (Shelby), South Ripley, Central and Indian Creek schools. Although she was around athletes, she didn’t consider herself to be one and was OK with her significant weight.
“It was just who I was,” she said.
The years passed and her two boys, Mike and Andy, graduated from Columbus North High School and began their own adult lives. However, Brian, Mike and Andy all “nagged” Sue to get healthier and lose weight.
At age 59, when many people are looking to climb on the couch, Sue Reynolds decided to get off it.
“There were so many things I couldn’t do,” she said. “I couldn’t get into a booth at a restaurant. I couldn’t sit on an airplane. If I had a business meeting and it involved walking a block, I couldn’t go.
“But being overweight is not an illness. It is reversible.”
She walked outside her Chestnut Avenue home and walked to the next driveway. That was enough. Then a few days later, she went to the next driveway down. She kept adding a little distance.
“Then one day I walked to the mall,” she said. “The only way to get home was to walk back. I was still 300 pounds at the time, and it probably was too much for me. Everything hurt.”
But she did it, and her sons urged her to try walking a 5K.
She agreed and decided on a 5K race in Lexington, Kentucky, the Krispy Kreme 5K Challenge. She still laughs at the name.
“I was so scared,” she said. “I called the director of the race and told him that I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I knew I would be the last one to finish.”
Long after most of the runners had gone home, Sue Reynolds reached the finish line. “They announced on the public address system, ‘Sue Reynolds has finished.’ I felt like I had won the Boston Marathon.”
She went forward, joining a “Next Generation” fitness class. “I think I had a lot of courage,” she said. “I had a saying, ‘Pride go away.’ Who wants to go to an exercise class and jiggle? But everyone there was like me.”
Eventually, she started thinking about a triathlon. “I didn’t know anyone who did triathlons,” she said. “But I knew I could swim the breaststroke, and I could do a 5K. I was taking a spin class.”
Her first triathlon came in March of 2013, an indoor triathlon at Indiana University. The cycling was done on a spin bike, so that made her comfortable. She swam in a pool and ran 30 laps on a track.
Every lap she ran, the young volunteers cheered for her.
She then entered the Indianapolis Sprint Triathlon at Eagle Creek later that summer. “That’s when I fell in love with it,” she said.
If she was going to spend her time learning to be a triathlete, she needed help. So Reynolds hired Bloomington’s Brant Bahler, a 29-year-old accomplished triathlete and instructor.
Did Bahler expect that Reynolds, still in the mid-to-high 200-pound range, could be a competitive triathlete.
“No, not even close,” Bahler said. “But I get a lot of people who just want to better themselves. Sue just wanted to live a healthier life, and I don’t think either of us felt that she could become a top-tier triathlete.
“But through the course of the first year we spent together, she was willing to listen and learn. We worked together as a team, and she started to see her progress continue to snowball. She wrapped her life around her goals.”
That meant make huge changes in things such as nutrition.
“My saying is to ‘Dream Big,’” Bahler said. “I think the sky really is the limit for Sue. She is a good reminder that you can’t look at a person and determine where they can get to. It is very fulfilling as a coach to see what Sue has accomplished.”
At this year’s USA Sprint Triathlon National Championship on Aug. 9 in Milwaukee, Reynolds placed 11th in her 60-64 age group. Her time of 1 hour, 29 minutes, 11 seconds was accomplished with personal bests in the 750-meter swim, the 20K cycling portion and the 5K run. At 61, her times are getting better.
She enjoys sharing her success, hoping that other people might attempt a similar transformation.
“One of my messages would be that it is possible to lose weight the old-fashioned way,” she said. “By making good choices.
“I just people to know that it is possible. I never dreamed that I could stand in front of a mirror and flex my muscles. But it takes patience, and you’ve got to stick with it. Here I am.”
Now she looks at her life differently.
“I changed from a recreational athlete to a competitive athlete,” she said. “I have that fire in my belly.
“I suspect that a lot of women my age have athletes living inside of them.”
FAMILY: Husband, Brian; sons, Mike (Columbus North graduate 2001), Andy (North grad 2003)
JOB: Owns the non-profit American Student Achievement Institute
DID YOU KNOW?: The former long-time Columbus resident lost from 335 pounds to 141 pounds and now it a top triathlete