NEW PORT RICHEY
Running on a treadmill, Joe Walsh squinted against the sweat that threatened his eyes. The 33-year-old college student, retail sales consultant and single dad stood six feet, two inches tall and weighed 366 pounds.
He was in the gym at the New Port Richey Rec Center because he won a contest created by a local trainer who agreed to help the winner lose a hundred pounds in a year. The running, part of a fitness circuit the trainer designed, is difficult.
But Walsh wanted this, he said, because his 6-year-old daughter needs him. He grew up without parents. He doesn't want his daughter to grow up without him.
• • •
Walsh was born in Rochester, N.H., to a waitress mother and a mechanic father who divorced when Walsh was 2. His dad moved and Walsh visited him occasionally, until his mother's car crash. She died at the scene. Walsh was 6.
"After my mom died, my dad gave custody to my grandparents," Walsh said. They ended up in Port Charlotte, and Walsh only saw his father in the summers. Their relationship was distant.
"Out of sight, out of mind," said Walsh.
In sixth grade, Walsh started acting out. His straight A's slipped. He stole his grandma's Benson and Hedges cigarettes. He snuck out at night with friends.
His grandparents "were a little too old to deal with my shenanigans." So they sent him, at his request, back to New Hampshire to live with his father.
"It was miserable," Walsh said. His father had remarried, and that Walsh clashed with his stepmother is an understatement, he said. But his stepmother and father divorced when he was 16.
When she moved out, Walsh and his father bonded. They rode four wheelers and dirt bikes and went fishing. On a Saturday, Walsh returned home from a party as his father hopped on his motorcycle headed for a bar.
Walsh woke up the morning after to discover a police car outside his house.
Around a bend on his way to the bar, his father had lost control of the bike. He died at the scene. Walsh was 17.
• • •
Walsh moved in with friends and finished high school. He took a year off after that, using it to travel and party. He drank because it helped him forget his grief. Then he started college, but dropped out after half a year. He started to notice his beer belly.
Walsh had always played sports and stayed trim, but that had changed, he said. He didn't worry about it at first. Weight had never been a problem.
About a year after Walsh dropped out of college, he trained for a TSA job with the Department of Homeland Security. At work, he met Scott Sayer, a single dad of an 8-year-old boy. The colleagues became roommates and best friends. In 2005, Walsh met a girl. They dated, and when things got serious, Walsh moved out of the apartment he shared with Scott and in with his girlfriend. Their daughter, Maddy, was born in 2007. When Walsh and Maddy's mother broke up, Walsh was awarded full custody.
Walsh figured if Scott could be a single dad, so could he.
He quit smoking but with that came weight gain. When he cooked, he prepared big portions. When he didn't, he ate fast food. Then he faced another tragedy.
He was driving when his phone rang in March 2013. It was somebody in Scott's family. Scott had committed suicide.
Walsh ended the call and cried. He explained to his daughter that "Uncle Scottie" was gone.
"I worried most about his son," he said.
• • •
After Scott died, Walsh fell into a funk, as if "you've got a boot on your chest, keeping you down," he said.
Despite it, he decided to give college a second shot, to study psychology. He enrolled in online classes, but the funk persisted — equal parts grief, depression and stress. Lack of motivation and time fueled bad eating habits. He gained 40 pounds in 2013.
"Clothes that were normally big were getting tight," Walsh said. He was out of breath a lot, and his heart raced. His weight also affected his daughter. Maddy likes to play outside, Walsh said, and ride the rides at amusement parks.
"She's too small to ride without an adult and I'm too big of an adult," he said.
He wanted to change that, he said, and to find Maddy a stepmom. He had tried gym memberships and fad diets. He wanted to be on ABC's Extreme Weightloss or NBC's The Biggest Loser.
Then he found the EXWL Challenge, a contest created by Justin Lawrence, a strength and conditioning coach who works at the Rec Center as a recreation supervisor. EXWL stands for "extreme weightloss."
Round one of the contest was the application. Of six applicants, five showed up for round two, said Lawrence: a two-hour boot camp. Walsh advanced to round three: an interview. A panel of judges picked him. Lawrence would help him lose a hundred pounds.
The prizes include strength and conditioning coaching with Lawrence, participation in challenges like the 5K he finished in April, plus yoga, stress management, grief counseling and one meal per week at Chick-fil-A, all of which have been donated by volunteers or paid for by sponsors. Training started Feb. 1. As of April 30, Walsh weighs 329.8 pounds.
"(The contest is) affecting (Walsh's) whole life, and that's hard," Lawrence said. Every day, Walsh gets up an hour earlier than he used to, to prepare meals. He doesn't eat red meat during the week. He doesn't eat French fries. He has added six weekly gym visits to his schedule, already full with 40 hours of work, two classes and being a dad.
But he is losing fat. Running is getting easier. He is still stressed, but he isn't depressed.
This is "an investment in his daughter's future and his," his trainer said.
"When's the last time you saw a 360-pound, 80-year-old man?" Walsh said.
So in the gym, he wipes the sweat off his face, thinks of Maddy and starts another round of running.
"I'm adding more time to my clock," he says.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.