It began with inspiration. The perspiration would come later.
Seated in the dark theater, a 245-pound woman watched the lean, muscular bodies on stage, her first time to attend a bodybuilding, physique and fitness competition. It wouldn’t be her last.
“I watched the show,” Denise Michelle Langford reflects on the complimentary ticket that brought her to the April 2012 National Physique Committee Emerald Cup held in Bellevue, “and there was a gal who was competing that had lost well over 100 pounds.”
For Denise, who had withdrawn socially because of her excessive weight gain, seeing the svelte competitor was inspirational.
“I thought, 'If she can do it, why can’t I do it?'” the 45-year-old blonde says about feeling moved that night to change her life.
Although she wasn’t sure she had the right body type for a figure competition — a body hidden underneath years of an unhealthy lifestyle — Denise was certain she liked to compete. Active in junior high and high school gymnastics, she had experienced the excitement of performing and feeling physically fit.
But life after college had taken its toll. Hired in 1991 as a police officer for the city of Bothell, the young woman worked odd shifts, ate junk food and had two babies during her career. By the time she became police captain, she was shopping in the women’s department for sizes from 18 to 20.
“The biggest thing,” Denise remembers about carrying so much weight, “was I felt really bad physically. The activities that I loved to do — hiking, going for walks — gave me knee pain. The other part was feeling so embarrassed about my weight gain, separating myself from my friends, turning down invitations.”
It was a huge leap to envision herself onstage in a bikini. Nevertheless, she began to exercise while keeping Philippians 4:13 in mind, a Bible verse that encouraged her.
That didn’t mean it was easy or that she liked doing the cardio — bicycling, walking — and admits she saw it as drudgery at first. But then one day, a couple of months into her new goal, she had a second inspirational and motivating moment.
“I had a doctor appointment and when I arrived, there was a paraplegic who could only use his mouth to operate his wheelchair,” Denise recalls the vivid memory of the person waiting at the outside entrance, unable to open it. “I was suddenly ashamed of myself,” she says with emotion. “What that man would give to be able to open the door.” Then she adds, “And I can’t do things because exercise burns, or is too hard?”
Newly inspired and seeing exercise as a privilege, Denise undertook her weight and fitness goal with “no excuses” intensity. She joined a variety of classes at the Mukilteo Gold’s Gym, finding a new sense of community and instructor Maria Breitenstein who made a difference.
“She treated me like an athlete and not a fat person,” Denise recalls with gratitude.
Less than a year later at Denise’s first competition in Vancouver, Wash., this mother of two teens would never be perceived as fat after a weight loss of 115 pounds.
“They announced that I’d lost a lot of weight and the audience cheered for me, Denise remembers the déjà vu moment onstage as she was awarded fourth place, followed by another moment that meant even more. “I was out in the lobby and at least ten people — all women, ranging in ages from 30 to 70 and a little, or significantly overweight — said they identified with me and they were inspired.”
Denise is quick to give credit to instructors and friends who have encouraged and motivated her. After a lot of weight loss early in her fitness program, an acquaintance who trained competitively urged her to contact Tanji Johnson’s SaveFitness team comprised of regional women and men training through the faith and fitness program.
What she soon discovered was how weightlifting transformed her body shape and increased weight loss. But even better was finding a “sisterhood” that she hadn’t experienced since Girl Scouts and gymnastics — a group of women that truly wanted her to succeed.
“I don’t think I could have ever gotten as far on my own,” Denise says of her qualms about actually being in a competition.
But because of their encouragement, a tanned and toned Denise took the big step.
“On stage I could hear my teammates in the audience cheering for me,” the striking young woman remembers. “It would have been a totally different experience if I’d been trying to do it alone.”
Denise, who in May was named "Most Inspirational" at the NPC Emerald Cup, winning third in her division, then placed first the next week in the 2013 NPC Empire Classic Open Figure Class, believes it’s not about the trophies but how we impact people in our life.
On her Facebook page Denise Michelle Inspiring Transformations she writes, “Each day, we are all faced with countless opportunities to interact with and impact others, whether at home, with friends, at the gym, at church, or somewhere else. I challenge you to strive to make sure your footprint helps to support and lift others in hope, spirit, and love.”
Winning advice from a woman who has reached her goal in more ways than one — an athlete inspired to inspire.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13 (NKJV)