The Lighthouse Fitness Project is an opportunity to share and grow the vision, mission and focus of the Platte River Fitness Series through the stories and photographs of 10 individuals who have generously agreed to let us share their journey to wellness and the “Lighthouses” who helped guide them. Click here for more posts from the Lighthouse project.

Brittany McDaniel

Brittany McDaniel

This week's Lighthouse Fitness Project is really about shining a light on fitness and a full life for the gifted and not-so-gifted. When youngsters spend their early years in the "non-athletic" group, they can feel invisible and marginalized. Bringing everyone out of the shadows and into the light of a healthy life means making sure everyone, no matter their background or size, feels truly welcome into a fitness community, and that not only are they welcome at the starting line, the starting line is less without them.

"I can remember being upset when gym teachers ignored me because I was clearly not the star player on any team. Half of the time, I was too busy praying that I wouldn't be picked last for the team to pay attention to the rules of the game we were supposed to play."

Brittany McDaniel grew up feeling like athletics and fitness were for those "other kids," and not for her. In a "sports are everything" era for youth, she found herself on the outside, looking into a world she believed did not include her. When we are young, fitting in and being accepted is everything, and for most kids, this includes athletics. Sports are a path to social acceptance. What is the life experience of kids who don't fit that mold, and how can we help our children understand that exercise is a life-time practice, and that fitness and sports are not necessarily synonymous? How can we help them to understand that staying physically active goes beyond participation in sports?

Brittany's story is a beautiful story of moving from the "sidelines" to getting into this game we call a healthy life. If you were ever picked last for the team, or dismissed by a coach because you didn't look like an athlete, you will find a common bond with Brittany McDaniel. If you have ever made a choice to defy stereotypes and expectations, you too will find a common bond with Brittany McDaniel. If you knew in your heart that you were an athlete when everything and everyone said otherwise, and that it is you who defines the word "athlete" in your own story, you share a bond with Brittany.

"I have struggled with my weight my whole life,” Brittany says. “I can remember stepping on the scale during gym class in fourth grade and feeling really uncomfortable because all of my classmates were in the double digits and I had grown to the triple digits, weighing in at 104 pounds. All through high school and college, my weight would go up and down by 30 pounds at a time. Mine was a world of music and drama. I knew in college that I needed to make some lifestyle changes. There had to be a way for me to improve my outlook for a healthy life."

So called "yo-yo" dieting, where one's weight goes up and down dramatically with each effort to lose weight has serious health consequences. Most gain more weight than lost with each loss/gain cycle.

"I joined a 'Couch to 5K' program at school thinking it would be a great beginning and a way for me to meet new people and get in shape. It turned out to be a club for former cross-country and track athletes who were looking to get back into running. I made it one session and then cried as I walked myself back to my dorm room."

Brittany was again on the outside looking in at a world where she felt she didn't belong. Excluded and discouraged, once more.

Brittany as a camp counselor

Brittany as a camp counselor

"After college, I met my husband, we got married, and settled into life. The summer that Sam and I married, we attended his brother's wedding, and I spent a week counseling at a summer camp. Pictures from each of those events changed my life. I was frightened. I didn't recognize the girl in the pictures. Five months later, we had pictures taken on New Year's Eve, and I was still shocked by my own appearance. On January 2, 2011, I topped the scales at 217 pounds, the heaviest I had ever been. I had reached my 'point of decision.' I spent the next year running and lifting weights, and made enough progress in my fitness to become a certified Zumba instructor!

Brittany at a wedding — second from right

Brittany at a wedding — second from right

“After dropping down to around 175 lbs., the scale stopped moving and I struggled. I had suffered stagnation before in my efforts, and it scared me. After a particularly hard but beautiful run on a treadmill in December 2011, I asked Trudy Merritt, Director of the Platte River Fitness Series, if she thought I was capable of doing a triathlon. Her belief was that I already was a triathlete, I just needed to start training like one. Someone actually thought I was an athlete! My thought was that if I had a goal to shoot for other than a number on the scale, I could get out of my workout rut and try something new. Trudy told me that the James O'Rourke Memorial Triathlon was an awesome race to start my life as a triathlete!

“After 20 weeks of training including the Tri101 class, I showed up on that brisk April morning with a crazy swim cap and my husband's bike. In 1:35:46 after I started my clock, I crossed the finish line, declaring the day second only to my wedding day as the best day of my life. I was hooked. I really was an athlete, after all."

Brittany is a glorious example of the importance of seeing the potential in people rather than comparing them to an unrealistic ideal that most of us never reach. Brittany McDaniel came out of the shadows of the unathletic, and shone brightly in some of the most challenging events any athlete can complete, including several half-marathons, an Olympic distance triathlon and a full marathon!

"Along the way," Brittany explains, "I over came (mostly) my fear of swimming in open water. I became bolder. I got hit by a car while training on my bike, and I kept training. I became more determined. I received the sunburn of my life on a group ride, and I have shed more tears than I could have ever imagined."

Brittany's tears are no longer those of someone who doesn't belong, but of a fitness warrior, willingly taking on the challenge and the struggle and knowing the gratitude athletes feel for those lessons.

"The Platte River Fitness Series has completely changed my life. It gave me year-round focus to keep healthy and to encourage others to do so, as well. During the 2013 season, my goal was to finish 12 races and become a PRFS Series Finisher. I chose a special person for each of those 12 races and ran in their honor. As I raced, I prayed for them and focused on doing my best for someone who wasn't able to run that day."

Pure grace. Brittany competed in the Tri Ogallala Triathlon in July, 2013, for her dad, who had spent most of his life overweight, as well.

Brittany continues, "Now here we are a year later, and my dad is down 60 lbs and my mom has lost 50 lbs and has even competed in a few races herself."

The "lighthouse" affect changes everyone. Someone lights the way for us, and we in turn, light the way to wellness for others.

"The PRFS provides a community that accepts me where I am now, but pushes me to be better. I have encountered countless 'lighthouses' along the way. They trained me, prayed for me and helped me improve race after race."

Brittany named Jason Gale, always willing to slow his pace and join her for a ride, as one of her lighthouses. She named Dee McCroden, explaining that "this tough lady challenged me in the pool. I gave my all trying to best her during training sessions and she always had a hug and a cheer for me at the end of every race. Marcia Keele with whom I worked to be a Series Finisher is a lighthouse. She is a woman who shares my heart and my struggles with weight loss, she kept me running during races when I simply wanted to sit down and be done."

Kisha Morland is a walking motivation for Brittany, reminding her to never give up and that this is not a diet, but a lifestyle. Brittany also looks at the very athletic she has met as lighthouses for her. Athletes like Mark Cullinan, Scott Wallace and Brock Wurl, whom she says "finish races in half the time that it takes me, but at the end of the day, they will sit and eat a banana with me and accept me as a part of their communitiy of athletes even though my medal might be coming in first in my age group of one and theirs is for the fastest time of all."

Brittany took the 2014 PRFS season off to prepare and celebrate the birth of her son. She will make sure that her son never feels invisible and she is dedicating herself to showing him that a healthy lifestyle is important, and that his mom is an athlete...no matter her size.   

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