TLCL Podcasts - The Low Carb Leader | 010 - Living a Life You Never Dreamed: An Interview with Sonya Jones, The Biggest Loser Finalist

You may remember Sonya Jones from the 16th season of the NBC hit reality TV series, The Biggest Loser. Sonya was the only female finalist on the show in that season, who subsequently lost to Toma Dobrosavljevic, who lost only 0.01% more weight than she did.

Before becoming a contestant, Sonya struggled with her self-worth and self-confidence. She says she has struggled to lose weight her entire life, but was determined to make a change and get into shape. Before becoming a contestant, she worked as a physical education teacher and often felt like a hypocrite due to her weight challenges and food addiction. She says she wanted to lose the weight – not only for herself – but to also be the health and wellness role model her students deserved.

On today’s episode of The Aspiring New Leader Podcast, Sonya shares her journey as a contestant on the show and explains what it was like to fulfil her “secret dream” of becoming a contestant. She explains some of the challenges she had to face throughout the experience – both physically and emotionally – and how the show has positively impacted her life. Today, Sonya is the outreach representative for HSHS Medical Group and an inspirational public speaker on a mission to help others become motivated to be the “very best version” of themselves.

“Realize that you are worth it. You are worth the fight.” – Sonya Jones

In This Episode of The Aspiring New Leader:

  • Sonya shares her story of growing up as a two-time fast pitch all-American softball and soccer player.
  • She explains how she became interested in The Biggest Loser show and how she achieved her dream of becoming a contestant.
  • She explains what it was like for her to be away from her family, friends, work, and church to be on the show for 6 months and how her employer reacted to this announcement.
  • She explains the competitive spirit of the other athletes on the show.
  • She explains how her experience on the show has changed her life and improved her self-confidence and self-esteem.
  • She shares some of the funniest moments that happened during the show, as well as some of the hardest moments she experienced.
  • She explains how she uses the experience from the show to “pay-it-forward” to inspire and motivate others.
  • She explains how she keeps herself disciplined to stay fit and healthy after the show ended.

Sonya Jones’ Advice for Aspiring New Leaders:

  1. Be ready. Be prepared.
  2. Never back down from a challenge.
  3. Don’t allow fear to dictate your steps.
  4. If you really want to be a leader, be a person who invests in the lives of others. Build people up; encourage them. You don’t determine if you will be a role model – you only determine what kind of role model you will be.

Reach Out to Sonya Jones:

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Read Podcast Transcript

010 – Living a Life You Never Dreamed: An Interview with Sonya Jones, The Biggest Loser Finalist

DAN: Welcome to The Aspiring New Leader Podcast. I’m your host, Dan Perryman, and you have joined us for Episode 10. Today we have a very exciting show. We have an interview with Sonya Jones who was the runner-up in the 16th season of The Biggest Loser on NBC. Sonya was the only female finalist in the show’s 16th season, and she lost the show by only .01%.

Before becoming a contestant on the show, Sonya admits that she struggled with self-worth and with self-confidence. She had struggled with being overweight her whole life, and she was bound and determined to make a change. As an elementary physical education teacher, Sonya knew she should be the model of health and fitness. Instead, she felt like a hypocrite and weighed in at 283 pounds in June of 2014. Six months later Sonya stepped on the scale and into the hearts of millions of Americans as she dropped a whopping 144 pounds and lost an amazing 50.88% of her body weight. I know you will enjoy this interview. It’s inspiring. It’s motivational. And we really appreciate Sonya being on the show. So we hope you enjoy the interview.

All right. Welcome, Sonya.

SONYA: Thank you. It’s good to be with you today.

DAN: Would you like to introduce yourself?

Sonja Jones’ Background

SONYA: Sure. My name is Sonya Jones. I am an outreach representative for HSHS Medical Group, and I was also on Season 16 of NBC’s reality TV show, The Biggest Loser.

DAN: That’s awesome. So we’ll get to that story in a little bit, but do you want to go back to the beginning and kind of take us through your journey?

SONYA: Sure. I was born at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. I grew up in Litchfield, Illinois, right down the road, and went to Greenville College, had a great experience there, and you know, grew up kind of, you know, just a normal childhood really. When I went to college I was a two-time All-American in fastpitch softball and played four years of college soccer, as well. I got my first job out of college at Calvary Academy, which is a private Christian school in Springfield. I was the PE teacher for a year and then moved into the role of an athletic director. I was there for 10 years and then went to Williamsville Community School District and was a PE teacher and coach out there for nine years – actually eight years, and then made a little name for myself on a reality TV show.

DAN: Yeah, that’s great. So what position did you play in fastpitch?

SONYA: I was a middle infielder, shortstop and second base, primarily.

DAN: So how fast did they pitch?

SONYA: We were still at 40 feet. The average was about 62 miles an hour. But let me tell you a really cool statistic. When – my last game, my last semi-professional game was in ’96, and we played against the United States Olympic team as they were traveling from LA down to Georgia. And come to find out they had all these statistics up, and hitting off of Lisa Fernandez, throwing 68 miles an hour, was comparable to a major league ballplayer throwing 143 miles an hour because of the distance.

DAN: Wow, yeah. I’ve seen them pitch. That’s amazing.

SONYA: Yeah, they pretty much that night made me look like an idiot. I mean the ball sounded like a strike, but I’m not sure if it was.

Becoming a Biggest Loser Contestant

DAN: So, The Biggest Loser.

SONYA: Yeah.

DAN: Yeah, so start at the beginning. How did you find out about the show? What interested you in the show?

SONYA: You know, I have loved The Biggest Loser since Season One. The first time I watched it, Season One, which was about 11 years ago, I fell in love. I loved – I didn’t really like reality TV, but I loved the show because it was inspirational, and I saw it changing people’s lives. And so, it’s funny; I watched a few seasons of it, and in 2009 I actually wrote a Facebook post, and the Facebook post was 25 random things you may not know about me, and number 10 on that list, back in 2009, was I secretly have a desire to be a contestant on The Biggest Loser. And so here I am all these years later, and that has come to pass. But like I said, I’ve always loved the show. I would sit at my house and watch it season after season with a big old pizza and a 2 liter of soda, and I would think man, that looks really hard. And I was right. It was. But I’ve always loved the show, and so I was – it was March of 2014. I was scrolling through Facebook, and lo and behold there was this ad that came on because I liked The Biggest Loser page, and it said if you are a former athlete, please apply online. So I did, and I forgot all about it. And I forgot about it.

Six weeks later I get this email from them asking me to go to an open casting call in Chicago that following Saturday. So I went. And I got three minutes to share my story. And basically my story, in less than three minutes, is that I was about 280 pounds. I’m 5’4”. I hated who I was physically, just hated the way that I looked. I hated everything about myself physically. My mom is an Okinawan, and they are the longest living people in the world. And I was basically killing myself because I couldn’t control my eating habits, and the fact that I had never been in a long-term relationship.

So that’s the story that I presented to them in less than three minutes. And when I left that day I thought, man, that was the biggest waste of three – you know, the biggest waste of a Saturday ever. And so I went to Portillo’s hot dog stand because I was like up there for The Biggest Loser, not The Bachelorette. So I wanted a hot dog. So I go get a hot dog. Twenty minutes down the road they call me and they ask me to come down for a one-on-one in Chicago the following Tuesday. I went. What was supposed to be a 20-minute one-on-one interview with producers turned into two hours. And at that point I left that hotel room and thought, better fasten your seatbelt. This could happen.

DAN: So was weight always an issue?

SONYA: I’ve been overweight my entire life. I remember in seventh grade a little boy coming up to me at Litchfield Junior High cafeteria and saying, “Hey, you’re fat.” And I did what every delicate little junior high girl would do. I stood up, and I punched him dead in the face. And I walked away. And you know, at that moment something inside of me changed. It was like I didn’t know I was overweight until he told me. And then the way that I thought about myself changed. When I would go to sleep overs I never wanted to change in front of the other girls. I – you know, at a locker room for sports I never wanted to be in the locker room. And it kind of morphed into something that really controlled me for the rest of my life.

I was 39 years old when I went to the ranch, and I think, gosh, in seventh grade you’re what, 12 years old maybe, 12, 13? And it was something that I wrestled with my entire life. And quite honestly, from that point forward I went to bed with the same thought every night, and it was, you know, maybe tomorrow will be the day that my weight loss journey actually begins. So those words, the power that I gave those words that were spoken over me, you know, in seventh grade is something that I almost wish I could go back and change.

DAN: Were you in a constant cycling of diet throughout all that time?

SONYA: From that point forward I went on every diet known to man. I mean I was – you know, in seventh grade I went on Nutrisystem. From that point forward I was – it was Nutrisystem, then it was counting calories, and then it was counting carbs and fats, and Weight Watchers, and Jenny Craig, and then there was, you know, South Beach, and then there was Adkins, and I’m not that bright so I’d get the good fats all screwed up and do some weird version of like South Adkins, you know, so I was – I dieted my entire life and just never got to a point where I liked the way I looked.

DAN: So when you found out about The Biggest Loser, tell us about how they notified you.

SONYA: Well, gosh, it was a long process. So I went to the one-on-one. Then I didn’t hear anything for a few weeks. Then I started getting all these requests. And the night – I was doing a 5K, and I was standing at the Springfield capitol for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and I got a phone call. And it was the producers from the show saying, you know, we are going to fly you out to LA. You are a part of casting finals, which basically meant they had whittled the cast from 88,000 people down to 50 or 60. They were taking their top 50 or 60 to LA where we’d go through a series of interviews, as well as, you know, appointments with all the medical staff. So we had to pass medical. We had to pass psych tests. We had to pass, you know, all kinds of – you had to meet with a dietitian, the NBC executives. There were just tons of appointments during that time.

And so then they took – they whittled it down from 50 or 60 down to our top 20, and one night, after 12 days of being sequestered in a hotel room – literally we didn’t even have our own room keys. We couldn’t leave the room unless we were escorted. After 12 days of that they took us into a room, and they said congratulations; you’re the cast of Season 16. Now you have about 48 hours to – you have about 48 hours to say your goodbyes. So we took our phones, took our computers, took everything. We called people that following Monday – well, the people who we were allowed to tell – and then we turned in everything. So we had lost all form of communication with our loved ones for the next four months.

DAN: So when did it get real, right then?

SONYA: Right then. Yeah, when they said that you’re the cast – actually I think it really got real when I turned my phone and my laptop in because then I wasn’t able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or call my parents or text people, you know. Then you were totally on your own. And I turned my phone in on Monday at 2:00, and we had – our first call time was that night at 6:00. And we went to film our first episode at the LA Coliseum.

The Reality TV Experience

DAN: So what was the secrecy around it like? They probably had you sign statements saying you would not talk about it.

SONYA: I actually signed a million-dollar disclosure agreement that if I told people that I was going to be on the show that NBC could come back and sue me. So basically we were able to tell the people in our world who were closest to us, who we were with every day that we were going to be gone, and so yeah, that was interesting. I had to go to my superintendent who at the time he was phenomenal, you know, and I just basically went in and asked him if he watched reality TV, and he’s like, where you going with this? So I told him. There were probably 40 or 50 people who knew that I was actually going out to try out for The Biggest Loser, but most people had no idea, and I have a – even before the show I had a pretty big social media presence, and people were like, where is she? What’s going on? My phone was turned off, so I was not – I wasn’t receiving or responding to any sort of messages at all.

DAN: So were there rumors around your disappearance?

SONYA: There were, yes. Actually my best friend started just telling people that I went to the Betty Ford Clinic. So but yeah, I was just gone, you know, and then fortunately my – they announced the cast before school started, so it was perfect timing because it was June and July, so people at school wouldn’t have seen me anyway. But they announced the cast on August 5th, and so at that moment, you know, my – I had already sent an email – not an email – a letter to my superintendent. Said please email this to our staff. I had sent something from my best friend to give to our pastor so that he could read it to the church because I mean I’m in church every week. It’s a very important part of my life, and I sing in the choir, and I play in the orchestra. So I’m very upfront, and it’s like, is she just gone? Did she quit the church? What happened? So it was nice to be able to let people know, hey, she’s gone. She’s fine, but she’s also on a reality TV show.

DAN: Did you the school just give you a leave?

SONYA: The school gave me an unpaid leave of absence, which was amazing. So many Biggest Loser contestants lose their jobs, you know, but my superintendent, the community, Williamsville-Sherman, they were the most – I could not have asked for a better experience. You know, Dave, Dave Root was our superintendent, and he just passed away just not too long ago. And Dave was so supportive, and he said, Sonya, go. He said go, and you have our blessing, and you have a job when you come back. He said, we’ll make do here. We want to support you.

DAN: Yeah, that’s the part that I don’t think we even think about is how it affects your life.

SONYA: Daily life, yeah, because I still have a mortgage to pay. I still have lights at my house that – you know, I have utilities that need to be paid for. So yeah, fortunately I have lived with my best friend for several years, and so she was able to just kind of take over those finances so that I didn’t have to worry about that. There was someone managing that part of it. But yeah, it was crazy.

DAN: And you didn’t have the million dollars in case they sued you?

SONYA: Correct. No, no, I had to borrow it. Right. So I wasn’t telling anyone.

DAN: Yeah, that’s amazing.

SONYA: I know.

DAN: Yeah, I wondered how they kept things quiet.

SONYA: They – it’s no joke. I mean, they are not the least bit shy about saying we will come after you because they want the cast to remain secretive, especially our cast because it was such – it was a pretty high-profile class with – cast, with a lot of different athletes.

DAN: We just talked about this, but talk about some of the –

SONYA: Yeah, so I was on Season 16. It was called “Glory Days,” and we had some phenomenal athletes on there. It was all former athletes, and you know, on our cast was Damien Woody. He was a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots. Scott Mitchell played in the NFL for 12 years. Zina Garrison won Wimbledon a couple times and has some gold medals for tennis as well. Vanessa Hayden played in the WNBA, and my personal favorite, Lori Harrigan-Mack, was a three-time gold medalist in fastpitch softball. And so we had a cast of 20 phenomenal athletes, which made our season a lot of fun. And really there was no drama. Even production, the producers tried to create drama, but we just weren’t having it. You know, it was like we were there to do our business. And there’s something really special about being with a cast of athletes and knowing and saying, you know what, I’m going to do everything in my power to help you, but I’m going to do everything in my power to beat you, you know, because at that point they become – if they are their strongest they push you to be your strongest. And we respected our opponents. It was awesome.

DAN: Did they all have different stories about why they gained weight?

SONYA: Yes, all of them did. We all had different stories. I had been overweight my whole life. I think of Lori, my friend, Lori. She, after her last Olympic game, I mean, from that point forward she had eight miscarriages and with each one put on more and more and more weight. Woody, Woody Carter was on my season, on my team, and nine months before he left for the show his wife passed away of cancer. And you know, so he had put on a lot of weight. But each person has very specific stories, and that’s kind of how you’re cast. My story, quite frankly, was one of the most boring ones. But some really intense stories.

DAN: Yeah, that’s so cool. Okay, so day one of the show.

Physical and Emotional Challenges

SONYA: Yeah, day one was awful. I left – I had – to put things in perspective, like I said, I was a semi-professional athlete. I played four years of varsity college soccer. I knew what it meant to work out. Even in college my playing weight was between 210-225. I’ve always been a big girl, but I didn’t let that stop me. I knew what it meant to work out. That first episode I thought I would die. I really did. I was – here we are; it’s – our first workout is three hours with all different trainers, and I almost passed out at one point. Treadmills, ellipticals, strength training, you know, body movements. It was three hours of the most grueling exercise that I could even begin to describe to you, and it ended with the cast pushing the Biggest Loser bus up a hill. I mean, it was awful. It was awful. And then our first challenge was called “Sand Mountain.” And we were in Malibu, and you had to go up Sand Mountain. You go up the first mountain, you go down, and then you go back up, but you’re going over these obstacles, and it’s that really fine sand that swallows your feet, and it’s almost like when you take a step you almost take a step backward. But you had to be able to accomplish that challenge or you were booted off the show because there were 20 spots and – I’m sorry; there were 18 spots, but there were 20 contestants.

DAN: Oh wow. So what was your first meal?

SONYA: Oh. You know what, the truth of the matter is the first six weeks I didn’t feel like eating. I was too tired to chew. I didn’t want to chew anything. I was – so I would blend – I’d get some kefir. I’d get some Greek yogurt. I’d throw some kale and some fruit in there and I would blend it because it was really hot, too, and I would drink my nutrition that way because we just didn’t feel like eating. I would down a Greek yogurt every now and again. I got to a point, you know, a few weeks – I didn’t do that all the time, but our first – what we would basically have is like Greek yogurt and egg whites in the morning. For lunch we would have some leafy greens and some protein. And then for dinner we would have – for dinner we would have usually fish and veggies.

DAN: So was the refrigerator and cupboards full of food?

SONYA: Always.

DAN: So you could choose whatever you wanted to eat?

SONYA: Yes, and it was possible to overeat on the ranch. Everything was stocked, freezers, refrigerators, pantry, everything with whole, fresh, for the most part organic foods. There was no junk there. So it all had to be approved, and it was all there, and we could – it was at our disposal. If we wanted to have, you know, 500 calories in walnuts, we could. If we wanted to have, you know, a bunch of, you know, almonds or whatever, it was all there. But it was up to us to figure out how much we were supposed to have.

DAN: Right, so for those that aren’t familiar with The Biggest Loser, this was about six months of your life, right?

SONYA: Right. Yeah, from start to finish it was – I left in June and came – and it was June to January from start to finish. So my finale date was about six months away from when I actually started.

DAN: You had friends that were contacting you, or you were cut off the whole time?

SONYA: Cut off the whole time. We could get some screened letters – see, our season there was a secret that no one knew about on the cast. When people think about The Biggest Loser they always think of the names Bob Harper and Jillian Michaels. Well, they weren’t on the show this season for the first time. They had been replaced by Jessie Pavelka and Jen Widerstrom. Well, what we didn’t know is that Bob Harper was still on the show at another location called Comeback Canyon. So if you were eliminated from the ranch you would go to Comeback Canyon with Bob. It was you versus another contestant who had lost the week before. They would fight it out. And then in Episode 15 Bob brought his contestant back to be in the final five. So that’s – so they didn’t want anyone to know. They didn’t want any of the cast to know what was going on. So they screened all of our letters. We never got to call home until after makeover week, and we knew that Bob was here. So we lost all communication at home. It was like three days before we even realized that Robin Williams had died.

DAN: That is crazy.

SONYA: No TV, no Internet, no radio, nothing. But I have to tell you it was one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to go somewhere and just be focused on the task at hand, not be distracted by social media, not be distracted by my phone, to be able to be present in every conversation. It was amazing. I’d go back and do it all over again.

DAN: So you trained for four months, and then you had some time to train for the finals?

SONYA: Correct. I got home in November, early November as the final three. So myself, Toma Dobrosavljevic– try and say that 10 times in a row – and Rob Guiry, we were the finalists. We were the top three. And we were at home trying to win the entire thing. So we – Rob came home for a little while. He’s from Jersey. And then he went back home – or he went back out to LA. And then Toma and I came home until January. And since we were in competition – Toma and I are very close. We’re great friends, and so we actually wound up flying back to LA. We didn’t even know. We didn’t tell each other until we got out there, but we flew back the first week in January and trained hard because it’s really hard to break a sweat in Illinois, you know, when it’s four below and you’re trying to run five miles outside, and you’re not sweating. So we moved back out there.

DAN: I’m sure you were getting asked a lot of questions.

SONYA: Well, it’s kind of funny because I was getting asked a lot of questions. However, I looked so differently because when I got back I had just finished episode 17. We had just wrapped up the season. Well, everyone here had only seen through episode eight. So people would pass me and not even know that it was me, which was awesome because I could work out. But once people knew that it was me, then it was much harder to go to Sam’s and get oranges, you know?

DAN: That’s so cool.

SONYA: Yeah.

DAN: So fast forward to the finals.

SONYA: Yeah, finale.

DAN: For the listeners that don’t know this story, I’ll let you tell the story.

The Biggest Loser Finale

SONYA: Well, you know, I had been Biggest Loser on the ranch from episode 5 to 17. I was number one. I had lost the highest percentage of weight. If you told me 30 minutes before I walked onto that stage that I was going to lose I would have said you’re nuts because I had put everything that I was – I put everything into that competition. But I did. I lost. I lost by .01% of my body weight. So I lost $250,000 by less than a pound. And that night Toma beat me, and Toma beat me fair and square. He and I started together. We ended together. He deserved to win as much as I did. And you know, in that moment as the confetti is falling in front of 4.5 million people, I’m standing there, and I knew that the story, even though it hurt – I hated it. I’m a competitor. I love to win. But I knew that the story had been written perfectly for me. I was a PE teacher. I was a coach. And standing there that night I did everything just right, and it was like God whispered into my heart that this is the message for my students, you know, that I teach is that, you know, you can do everything just right, and sometimes the chips just don’t fall your way.

Athletes can practice perfectly, and sometimes they still don’t win the state championship. You can eat healthy your entire life and still get cancer. You know, you can do things that you do exactly perfectly, and sometimes the chips just don’t fall your way. And we have a responsibility to win and lose with integrity, and grace and mercy, and I knew that that was the lesson for my students. So even looking back, even though I wish I didn’t have a mortgage payment right now, you know, I think that the story was written perfectly for me because I’ve been able to translate that loss into such a huge gain because, you know, for me I hated who I was for so many years of my life. I have a self-confidence that I have never known. I walk taller. I smile brighter. And that is something that $250,000 can’t replace.

DAN: Yeah, and if you would have won, then you wouldn’t have that perspective.

SONYA: Right, no, I wouldn’t have. You know, it would have been – it would’ve been the classic Cinderella story. But for me, in full transparency would I have liked to have won? Absolutely. I would love to not have a mortgage payment. I would love to be able to pay off my parents’ house, you know, things like that. But for me it was absolutely the right ending, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

DAN: So what was one of the funniest moments when you were on the show?

SONYA: You know, there were a lot of funny moments. We had a really, really great cast. But I think probably one of the funniest moments was in week three we had won our first challenge – week two. I’m sorry. We had won our first challenge. And our team, the white team, was so tight. We were – and we loved our trainer. Jen was amazing. We all put our heads together and decided that we were going to tell her that we lost the challenge and that since we lost the challenge that she was going to have to send one of us home. She was going to have to choose. And we punked her to where JJ – JJ can cry about – JJ can look out the window and see a bird and burst into tears. That’s just JJ. So he starts telling Jen that we lost. He’s like please don’t be mad at us. He starts crying and says because we lost you have to send one of us home. She starts crying, and then we all lose it. We just cracked up. So that was kind of our relationship with our trainer. And just on the show, you know, that’s the one thing about the show that I would never – I wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world is walking through that experience with those people. You know, they’ve become – they’ve become an extended part of my family, and there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for any of them.

DAN: Besides losing with such a narrow loss, what was one of the hardest moments during the show?

SONYA: Well, there were several hard moments, but I think the hardest was in Episode 9 I was transferred from the white team, which is Jen’s team, over to Dolvett’s team, which was team red. Well, Dolvett was the first – when I left for the show I knew that I wanted Dolvett to be my trainer because he was a beautiful man with a smile, and I thought man, he is single. I’m going to be on his team. He’s gorgeous. You know, I love Dolvett. But then, you know, when I heard Jen talk I knew that she would be my trainer, and when I made that transition I was freaked out. I was really afraid. A lot of fear set in, and so I kind of had my only breakdown on the show there.

But then, you know, I did a prayer walk every morning around the ranch and just asked God to prepare my heart for the day and to prepare me for whatever might be coming my way. And one morning that week it was like, you know, I have said and put in many playbooks over the last 20 years something by Charles Swindoll, and it’s called, “Attitude.” And part of it says I believe that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I respond to it. And that came back to my mind. I thought you know what, I have a responsibility here. I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and I’m going to do this to the best of my ability. So that was probably the most emotional moment. But I think the hardest part of the show honestly for me was peeling back the emotional layers of what got me to 283 pounds. You know, you don’t get to 283 on a 5’4” frame because you like a little bit of pizza. You do that because you’re a food addict. I’m a food addict. I battle it every single day still. It’s something that doesn’t go away. And so I had to be willing to peel back those layers and say, okay, what is it that every time I get mad, or happy, or sad, or bored or whatever, why do I want to run through a drive-through? Why do I want to go to Casey’s and get a six pack of doughnuts? You know, what is it? So I had to be willing to attack those issues, and that was probably the hardest part.

DAN: I bet it was hard to see people leave, too, right?

SONYA: Oh man. That was hard because we all genuinely loved each other. We really did. And watching people go week after week was really hard.

DAN: Do you keep in touch with a lot of them, or –?

SONYA: All of them.

DAN: Oh, do you really?

SONYA: You know, we all have a secret Facebook page that we’re on, and we text a lot, especially the white team. We still have a strand that we – we check in, you know, with each other every couple of weeks. But yeah, you – they are forever a part of my life, you know? And we all – we were a very, very tight cast. So yeah, we still keep in close contact.

DAN: You’ve kind of talked about this already, but this has dramatically changed your life.

SONYA: In so many ways.

DAN: Yeah, just talk about that a little bit.

Transformation and Paying it Forward

SONYA: You know, like I said, before I left for the show I really did; I struggled with who I was physically. And I hated who I was. But when I walked onto the ranch I felt like a broken mess. You know, I didn’t – you know, I always felt like there was this black cloud over me that I placed there just because I didn’t like the way I looked. And you know, for me now I’ve gained so much confidence, which has to do with so much more than weight loss. This isn’t just about weight loss. This is about buying into a product that so many other people bought into. Everyone else loved me but me. And so having to, you know, walking that road and having a love for myself and – but beyond that, you know, understanding that I am fearfully and wonderfully created, you know, that I was bought with a price. And for me also knowing that I now have a responsibility to pay forward everything that I learned on the, you know, on the ranch, not everyone gets the opportunity to go to the ranch. And like I said earlier, you know, not everyone would want to. We worked out 6 to 8 hours a day. Our average calorie burn – mine was 5000 to 7000 calories. So not everyone would want to, but everyone does want to feel better about themselves. Everyone wants to walk taller. Everyone wants a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment, and that’s what the ranch gave me. And that’s what I want to pay forward.

So when I got home I started speaking all over the country because, you know, people wanted to hear about the show. They wanted to hear about the experience. So I would go all over the country and speak, and I fell in love with the power of a positive message and a microphone and being able to stand across from people and say you’re worth it and say if I can do this I know that you can, too. You can – you are capable of making any change in your life that you need to.

And so yeah, a lot of doors have opened up for me. Probably the biggest one is, you know, my new role with HSHS Medical Group. I was in education for 19 years, and I never thought I would leave. And they approached me almost a year ago, not quite, but almost a year ago and said hey, we’d just love to partner with you and have you, you know, combine your story and promote our desire to share health and wellness with our communities. So I do a lot of public speaking on behalf of HSHS, and HSHS Medical Group primarily, and that’s been awesome. That’s been a huge door that has been opened. I still speak all over the country and do some women’s conferences called Why Not You Today just so that I can continue to pay forward all the goodness that I learned while I was on the show.

DAN: So what do you focus on in your women’s conference?

SONYA: Well, what I focus on is body, mind and spirit. It’s not just – you can’t be completely healthy in one area of your life and not in the other areas. So when I bring speakers in, and you know I have someone speaking specifically on body. I have another person speaking on mind. I have another person – I usually do the spirit session. In my first Why Not You Today conference I brought in Lori Harrigan-Mack from the show, and we talked about her struggles, and Lori is just amazing. In this last conference it was called Why Not You Today, and the subtitle was Beautiful Things. And I also brought in a local author named Courtney Westlake whose daughter was diagnosed with – who has Harlequin Ichthyosis, which is a rare skin disorder. And I brought her in to talk about beauty and things like that. So I really focus on that one day pouring into women so many messages, just words of life. And just, you know, as women especially we seem to put so many other things and people before us. I just like to use that day to pamper them and let them know that they are perfect and that they may not feel perfect, and they may not feel whole, but they are – that they are amazing, amazing women and that they are irreplaceable in the lives of people around them.

DAN: And this society makes you believe that you need to be beautiful, and you look at the models in Europe and they’re all 85 pounds.

SONYA: Well here, too. You know, yeah, and one of the things – one of the things that I think people need to understand is just that there are so many forms of beauty and that it comes from within. You know, one of the things that I love about my trainer on the show, she’s like I don’t – she believes that, you know, strong is sexy. I mean she’s a huge CrossFit girl, and but above and beyond that that beauty goes far beyond looks. And so it’s something that all women struggle with, and this last conference was, you know, I had some women in who have been through some major tragedies in their life, and they, you know, how when you surrender those things into the hands of God that they can be turned into a beautiful thing.

DAN: So this podcast is focused on new leaders, younger leaders. What advice would you give to them?

Advice to Young Leaders

SONYA: Be ready. Be ready, be prepared, and never back down from a challenge. I would also say don’t allow fear to dictate your steps. I think about when I left for the show I was scared out of my mind. I thought I can’t do this, who does this? Who leaves and goes and tries to lose a significant amount of weight on a reality TV show? Who does this? But then I think about the way that I tried to talk myself out of that, and if I had let fear dictate that first step I would have never gone. So always be ready. Always be prepared.

Another thing I would say, if you really want to be a leader, be a person who invests in the lives of people. You know, invest in the lives of people. Build people up. Encourage them. You never determine whether or not you’re going to be a role model. You just determine what kind of role model you’re going to be. And so, you know, I always tell people there is so much about leadership that is just in your day-to-day walk with people. You know, add value to people. Speak words of life to them. If you’re too busy to ask someone how they’re doing or to let someone know that hey, you’re doing a good job, you’re too busy because people matter.

DAN: Yeah, and I talked about this in a previous podcast, that when I was new to leadership there’s not a lot of mentors or coaches. And so to your point, we really do need good leaders where you can mentor the younger people or, as you get more experience, but I think that’s lacking.

SONYA: Yeah, I agree. And you know, you have to realize that – John Maxwell says that leadership is influence, nothing less, nothing more. We have to be looking for people to speak to, to speak into. You know, it is lacking, but that just means that there’s a whole area for us to be able to dive into. I love nothing more than if I’m at lunch at Panera grabbing a salad, you know, people who come up and they want to talk about the show. Well, I just use that time to pour into them. I don’t care about talking about me. I want to talk about them and where they are and what they’re doing with their life because you know, when I go and speak to high school students, you know, I tell them I’m depending on you. I’m depending on you. You’re my future, and I’m depending on you to become the best version of yourself that you can be. So study, get prepared, don’t back down from a challenge, and go after it hard. You know, I always tell people set a goal, go hard after it, crush it and set a new one. We need that. We need that.

DAN: You haven’t heard from Jacob today. He’s actually here.

JACOB: I am here. I’ve been drawn into the story, and it was flowing so well I just took a backseat and wanted to listen.

DAN: Yeah, you know, your story has made me really think about reality television because you know I’ve seen episodes of The Biggest Loser. I had never thought what people have to go through behind the scenes and in their lives. You know, you talk about fear, that’s amazing that you just pretty much stopped your normal life and just went and did something.

SONYA: Right. You know, it’s funny. You have to – you have to count the cost. I didn’t have to lose my job. I didn’t have to, you know, abandon ship totally. I had a life when I came home. But with that being said, yeah, you have to be able to mentally compartmentalize, okay, is this a real fear, or is this just something I’m making up in my head? I was. I was scared to death to go on that show because I’ve seen it, and I knew physically how hard it would be. But emotionally is where the rubber really hit the road.

DAN: How long did it take you to get used to the cameras?

SONYA: About a week. It didn’t take long at all. You know, when you do the interviews you have to do them in like third person, so you know like we would do our workout, and they would film us, and I would have to say things okay like walking into the workout right now I feel like – well, it happened two hours ago. So you have to transform there, but it’s – it didn’t take us too long to realize that the cameras were there and honestly forget all about them.

DAN: Were the cameras everywhere?

SONYA: Everywhere. They were in our bedrooms. The only places where they were not is in the – were in the bathrooms.

DAN: Well that’s nice [inaudible 0:38:57.9].

SONYA: Yeah, right. Yeah, I know. Yeah, we were monitored 24×7.

DAN: That’s amazing.

SONYA: Yeah, it was – The Biggest Loser and that experience was the greatest experience of my life. I would leave today, and I would go do it all over again. I loved the relationships. I loved the experience. I loved the lessons. And going forward I love paying those lessons forward now, and I love being able to share about the show. Everyone wants to talk about reality TV, everyone. I mean they’re like, okay, what’s it like? I haven’t met one person who’s like, you know, I don’t really care about this. They love to talk about it. But I can use that as a way to be able to get into their lives and to hopefully invest in them because that’s what the ranch did in my life. So that’s what I love to pay forward.

DAN: So at the end of the day you lost how much weight, and what percent of your body weight?

SONYA: Okay, so at finale I had lost – my starting weight was 283. My ending weight was 139. I lost 144 pounds, which you know that for me was about 31 pounds underweight. My ideal body weight is 170 pounds. So I had to gain 30 pounds – 30+ pounds just to even get healthy. You know, and so since then Dr. H has said your goal weight is 170-ish. I really like to be about 183. That’s where I feel really good. You know, I’m probably about 10 pounds over that right now, so I’d like to drop that. But with that being said, you know, I mean this morning I got up early and ran three miles. I’m still – you know, I’m still healthy. I’m still able to do the things I love to do. But yeah, the whole thing was 144 pounds.

DAN: Which is like 50% of your body weight.

SONYA: 50.88% of my body weight is what I lost, which is great unless the winner, you know, loses 50.89% of his body weight, which is what happened.

DAN: And in a very short period of time.

SONYA: Less than six months.

DAN: That’s amazing. That’s amazing.

Gratitude and Good Health

SONYA: Yeah, so you know, The Biggest Loser gave me a chance. There’s been a lot of negative press about The Biggest Loser and about Biggest Loser challenges, and so on and so forth. But what I love about it is it serves as a catalyst. You know, here’s the thing; Biggest Loser did its job in my life. It allowed me the opportunity to lose weight. It allowed me the opportunity to impact millions of Americans while doing it. And now what I do with it from here on out, that’s on me. That’s not on the show. I am incredibly grateful for it.

There was a New York Post article that came out a while back about how bad The Biggest Loser was because our metabolisms fight us now. Well, that’s true. My metabolism does fight me. My body wants to put on weight. But I would rather have a slower metabolism than what I had when I left for the show because when I left for the show I was prediabetic. I had high cholesterol, high blood pressure, arthritis in my lower back, sleep apnea, severe sleep apnea, you know, diverticulosis. I just had a ton of things wrong with me, so – and now I don’t have any of that. I’m a no medication. I feel great. My numbers are – my blood numbers, you know, all that, my counts are great. So yeah, I’d switch that any time.

DAN: Yeah, that’s awesome. So what’s the one final thought you would want to leave with the audience?

SONYA: You know, I think probably the number one thought would be to realize that you’re worth it, to realize that you’re worth the battle. You know, a lot of people – obesity is a huge epidemic in our country, and this isn’t just if you’re overweight, but this is for anything, that you’re worth the battle, you’re worth the fight, you’re worth the struggle to get healthy, to maintain your health because whoever is listening to this, they are irreplaceable in the lives of people around them. You know, so remember that, and remember also to use every opportunity that you have to build people up. Anyone can find the dirt. Be the person that finds gold. You know, invest in people. Build them up. Encourage them. And speak words of life to everyone that you come in contact with.

DAN: Tell us a little bit more about your website, about your women’s conference.

Contact Sonya

SONYA: Okay, well my website is Sonya – and Sonya is with a ‘y’ – so My women’s conferences are – you know, we kind of – I’ve done two at this point. We’re looking to book a few more. That’s on the website, as well, and you know I’m always available for speaking engagements, especially in the Central Illinois and Southern Illinois area through HSHS, so that’s And yeah, I’d be happy to come and share with anyone at any given time.

DAN: But if somebody wants you to come to Hawaii?

SONYA: I’m in. I’m totally in. Yeah, I’ll just take PTO. No problem.

DAN: Yeah, and we’ll put some links to your website in our show notes, too. Well Jacob, any closing thoughts or comments?

SONYA: Jacob, wake up. Jacob, Jacob.

JACOB: I’m awake.

DAN: It is pretty awesome.

JACOB: It is. I’m speechless.

SONYA: And you know what, literally we could do this – I could talk about this for another five hours. You know, I never get tired of talking about it. It has – I love talking about it because I know what I got from it, and I want other people to draw from it also.

JACOB: And I’m pretty sure I could listen for another five hours.

DAN: Your story is very inspirational.

SONYA: Thank you.

DAN: Thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today.

SONYA: Sure. My pleasure to be here.

DAN: Jacob, any final thoughts? Come on, Jacob.

JACOB: I’ve got a –

SONYA: Jacob, give us something, man.

DAN: Come on.

JACOB: I, you know, one thing I do want to ask before we wrap it up here quickly is after the show is over is there any type of follow-up, and how do you keep yourself disciplined?

Motivation and Maintenance

SONYA: That’s a very good question. As far as the show following up with us, there’s not a ton. Now I say that – I say that as the show as a whole. Now the producers, the trainers, the dietitian, they follow up with us. They say anytime that you need something they are a text, a phone call away. So yes, there is follow up with them as far as knowing that we always have a place to turn. Now as far as staying disciplined, it’s hard. Losing the weight was hard. Maintaining is brutal. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But you know, I tell people a lot remember your why. And for me my why’s have kept me where I am now, you know? And when I say remember your why, it’s, you have to identify what your why is. For me I hated the way that I looked. I felt like a hypocrite. I was an elementary PE teacher and a coach, and I was supposed to be the model of health and wellness for my students and for an entire community. But I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like an embarrassment. I felt like everywhere I walked – if I’d go into a PE conference I felt like the biggest PE teacher there. When I walked into a track meet, I felt like the biggest track coach there. And I hated it. And that, that’s my why. I never want to go back there. I never want to feel that.

For other people, you know, I’ve said this in some of the talks I give. Their why’s are to get into the perfect outfit. Their why’s are to watch their children grow up, to watch their grandchildren grow up, to walk their baby girl down the aisle someday. Those are their why’s. Those are something that you have to keep in the forefront of your mind. So the truth is when my alarm goes off at 6:44, 5:44, whenever it is, and I want to roll over, hit snooze, I remember my why. And I get up, and I go do two, three, four miles on the treadmill. And what keeps me motivated is I watch episodes of my season nonstop. So when I’m on the treadmill that’s the only time that I really allow myself to watch our show, and it keeps me motivated to not want to go back.

DAN: That’s awesome. What is the one food that you don’t eat very often that you really miss eating?

SONYA: The one food that I will not allow myself to have, that I have not had since I got back from the show is any sort of creamy Alfredo sauce. Like I used to tear up shrimp fettuccine and chicken.

DAN: Yeah, love that, yeah.

SONYA: No, I can’t do it. I can’t do it.

DAN: So you just completely stay away from it?

SONYA: I will not touch it. I will not touch it. Now that’s one food. Now there are other foods that I wish I didn’t touch, like if – you know, I mentioned earlier that I’m a food addict. That means that I also hide food. So if we are sitting here and you see me eat one doughnut I guarantee you that I’ve had three or four that you haven’t seen. So I have to be very careful with what I allow myself to eat. You know, my diet is typically pretty balanced. You know, if I can do the same things, I do fine. But being a food addict, you know, I could leave here and go through a drive-through and get another whole lunch. But I don’t allow myself to do that anymore. But yeah, fettuccine is the one thing that I don’t.

DAN: I love that.

SONYA: Oh man, I wish – the one thing I wish I could get off of is diet soda. It’s the worst stuff in the world for you. It’s terrible, but I still drink it because I love crushed ice, and pellet ice, I believe, makes life worth living, so you throw a little Coke Zero on top of it, and I’m a happy girl. But that’s the one thing that I really wish that I could get off of.

DAN: Well, you have to do some stuff you like.

SONYA: Yeah, I know, but you know, you put that aspartame in your body, and you know, I may not gain weight, but I may grow a third eye or a tail or something.

DAN: We could do a whole episode on diet sodas.

SONYA: Right, yeah, exactly. I know, so –

DAN: All right. Well, that’s awesome. Well, thank you, Sonya, for being on the show.

SONYA: My pleasure.

DAN: This has been very inspirational.

SONYA: Sure. I’d come back any time.

DAN: Yeah, thank you very much.

SONYA: Thank you.

DAN: Thank you for listening to the show today. I hope you enjoyed the interview with Sonya, and I hope you were as inspired and motivated as we were doing the interview. If you found the content in this episode inspirational or helpful, please help us reach even more aspiring new leaders by subscribing to the show on iTunes or Stitcher, leaving your honest feedback, and sharing it with your friends. Be sure to check out our website at to download your free PDF on ways to help you improve your sleep habits as well as other helpful guides to help you lead a better life, business, and career.  Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn!

Until next time, take care and keep learning.