Three years ago, Chad Soileau was sitting in a roller coaster seat at Six Flags amusement park near Washington, D.C., when he was overcome with panic. He had waited in line for more than an hour for the four-minute ride on the Wild One, but when it came time to buckle up, the seat belt wouldn't fit.
"The attendant walked up and told me I was too big for the ride," recalled Soileau. "She yelled back to her co-workers, 'Bring the tool, we've got a large rider.' "
Five minutes seemed like an eternity as the crew struggled to extend the roller coaster's seat belt.
"Hundreds of people were watching," Soileau said. "It was the most humbling, humiliating experience of my life."
Afterward, Soileau stumbled off the ride and ran to the nearest restroom. "My stomach was in knots," he said. "I vomited for 10 minutes."
On Nov. 14, a very different Soileau will again face an audience — but this one will be cheering his remarkable achievements.
The Louisiana man will be among the 1,500 or so elite athletes who will gather on Clearwater Beach to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles in the Ironman World Championship 70.3. (The name comes from the combined distance of the three events, which is half the distance of the world famous Ironman World Championship held each October in Kona, Hawaii.)
"It has been a long road to get here," said Soileau, 37. "And I still have a long way to go."
Despite the trauma of the roller coaster incident, it wasn't until a few months later that Soileau realized the full extent of his obesity.
"I was on the scale at the doctor's office when he asked if I knew how much I weighed," he said. "I figured about 350. He said no, 464."
Soileau couldn't believe he was off by 114 pounds. He made up his mind, then and there, that he would do something about his weight.
On March 22, 2006, he underwent gastric bypass surgery. "I call it my re-birthday," he said.
The surgery came with complications. He developed several blood clots and had to undergo three additional surgeries, including one to have his gallbladder removed and another to repair a twisted bowel and an internal hernia. But Soileau persevered.
Soileau was 34 when he started his weight-loss journey. Overcoming his longtime addiction to food was his first obstacle.
"I used to order double of everything . . . two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts," he said. "When I would go to the drive-through I would pretend there was somebody else in the car because I was ordering so much food."
Weight-loss surgery is no sure bet; plenty of people regain weight after the procedure. But after his surgery, Soileau found it easier to control his urges. (See related story, Page 12.)
"Physically I couldn't eat as much," he said.
The physical changes soon were followed by emotional ones. "After a while I stopped wanting the food,'' he said.
The victories piled up. One day, he discovered he could bend over to tie his shoes. "It was a huge accomplishment for me when I could get in my truck without my stomach hitting the steering wheel," he said.
Soileau set weight goals, which he published on his Web site, www.Team464.com:
"Weigh less than 400 pounds — DONE!''
"Weigh less than 350 pounds — DONE!''
He also kept track of his progress by his pants size: He went from a size 64 to a size 34.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
As he recovered from the surgery and started to drop pounds, he began to exercise.
He started off small, walking back and forth to the stop sign a block from his house. Gradually, his walks got longer and longer. Eventually, he started running, then swimming, then biking.
"I came up with a list of goals for myself," he said. "One of them was to complete a triathlon."
To help him reach his goals, he kept a training log.
"At first it was just a mile, then 2 miles, then 3 miles," he said. "The whole time I dreamed about completing a marathon."
Soileau, who has a girlfriend, works as a Web site designer in New Orleans. He struggles to find time for the one to two hours of daily training a triathlon requires. As for his diet, he focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein to help power his new physique.
The discipline paid off. In February 2008, Soileau finished the Mardis Gras Marathon in New Orleans with a time of 5 hours and 36 minutes.
Soileau has completed dozens of road races and triathlons. He was invited by the World Triathlon Corporation to be its guest at this year's event in Clearwater. Officials hope Soileau's story will inspire others to try the sport.
"It is an honor to be here," he said. "What other sport lets you share the course with the pros?"
But despite his success, Soileau doesn't feel as if he has won his battle against obesity. He won't feel victorious, he said, until he completes a full-distance Ironman.
"I will know I won when I step over the finish line and I hear the announcer yell, 'Chad Soileau, you are an IRONMAN!' "
Terry Tomalin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8808.