Stargazing

Overland Park’s Kelli Poles finds new life through ABC’s ‘Extreme Weight Loss’

Kelli Poles’ big reveal on “Extreme Weight Loss” came after losing 123 pounds. She started at 331 (background). The former college basketball player started gaining weight after a knee injury.
Kelli Poles’ big reveal on “Extreme Weight Loss” came after losing 123 pounds. She started at 331 (background). The former college basketball player started gaining weight after a knee injury. ABC

In the many years I have interviewed people for a living I have never had a story subject pull up her shirt and flash her midriff at me.

But was I surprised when Kelli Poles did it during our conversation, in the middle of an Overland Park coffee shop?

Not really: Poles bared more than that on national TV.

Last year the former college basketball player applied to be on ABC’s “Extreme Weight Loss” show — and she made it.

ABC condensed her six-month journey into a two-hour episode that aired last month. At the end, viewers saw that the 28-year-old native of western New York, who now lives in Overland Park, had lost 123 pounds.

Let that soak in for a second.

She off-loaded the weight of another adult from her body.

“I was always overweight, but I was strong. So I was able to turn being overweight into something powerful,” said Poles, who stands 5 feet 11 inches tall and ended the show at 208 pounds.

The weight started piling on, though, when she missed the preseason of her freshman year of playing basketball at the University of Vermont because of a knee injury.

After college she moved to Kansas to be close to family, and her weight kept creeping up.

“I was sick of having so many regrets, and I knew if I didn’t become the best version of myself, I was going to spend the next 20 years … not being active, not being social,” she said. “I saw myself kind of curling up in this little ball. I kind of lost who I was.”

Being picked for the show gave her free access to Chris and Heidi Powell, the husband-and-wife personal trainers who shepherd “Extreme Weight Loss” participants on the road to better health.

For three months last year Poles and the other contestants lived and trained together at “boot camp” at the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center in the Denver area. Then they had to come home and maintain their healthy bodies on their own.

As someone who struggles with weight, too, I couldn’t wait to find out how the show works. So, too, did one guy in the coffee shop who recognized Poles from TV and took a seat at the table next to us so he could eavesdrop.

How she got on the show

Poles tried out for ABC’s “The Biggest Loser” two years ago but didn’t make that cut. The network obviously kept its eye on her because producers called and encouraged her to try out for “Extreme Weight Loss.”

She went to a February 2014 casting call for the show in Kansas City, then waited two months to find out that she was a finalist.

“So we (Poles and 30-some other finalists) go out there to Denver to the Anschutz Health and Wellness Center. The first thing you do is you go up to this huge open classroom and there are all these people. You have no idea who they are.” Then came a long, long questionnaire.

“This is the first moment where you say, ‘What did I get myself into?’

“Then they bring us our first meal and all of us are going, ‘This is a snack, not a meal! And I remember thinking I should have gone to McDonald’s.”

First, the mental work

“Basically this first week is just the beginning of the mental cycle, peeling back the layers. I remember very distinctly they came in and the executive producer said, ‘Why are you fat?’ And you cannot say you like food and you are lazy.

“And I struggled because I don’t have a traumatic story. Nothing happened to me as a kid. I wasn’t abused. It was so hard for me. If I knew, I would fix it. So how do you expect me to know this?”

No pain, no gain

“That first week was intense, insane workouts. There was vomiting … yes, they take you to that point. Oh man, there’s a lot of running, sprinting. Rope workouts. Jumping jacks. A lot of push-ups.

“Then there was the big interview with ABC … about why you belong there. And that determines if you make it to the second round.

“So we did that, and I get to the second week, obviously. And that was even harder workouts. From that point on, after that second week, they sent all of us home. And they said, ‘You’re going to do this on your own. You’re going to take everything we’ve taught you about nutrition, about working out, you’re going to go home and you are going to apply this to your real life.’

“So you have six to eight weeks, and in six to eight weeks either Chris (Powell) surprises you or he doesn’t.”

‘The’ call in April 2014

“They went to everyone’s hometown to shoot a hometown package so if you make the show they have that footage of you at home.

“So we’re sitting there filming and the phone rings. The camera crew knew who was calling. But I keep ignoring it because I don’t take calls from unknown numbers. But they were like, ‘Answer your phone now!’

“When I answered I said, ‘Hello, I’m in the middle of shooting here!’ And he said, ‘Hey, this is Chris Powell.’ And I’m like, oh my God!”

Back to Colorado: Three-month boot camp

“Boot camp is a big teaching moment. We spent a lot of time working out but a lot of time we were in the classroom learning nutrition.

“We talked a lot about the mental piece. We did a lot of exercises for that. I remember we had to carry around a candy baby, a big baggie full of candy for a month. You couldn’t (eat) it. It’s about teaching you your own strength.”

Tastes like chicken

In addition to working out four to six hours a day, the contestants followed a diet called carb cycling, a protein-and-veggie rich regimen that limits carbohydrates. Contestants, who lived four to an apartment, made their own meals and shopped for their own groceries.

“We’d go shopping every Sunday or whatever and we’d wipe out the entire chicken breast (section).”

Realization dawns

“It was probably a couple of months into boot camp. The eating and the working out part, because I was an ex-athlete, it started to feel good again.

“When I went into it, in my mind, my weight was the reason for everything. It was the reason I wasn’t in a relationship, why I wasn’t putting myself out there, why I didn’t have friends anymore. And that became an excuse. There was the moment I realized, I’d done this to myself. These problems just don’t go away because I was losing weight.”

Home after boot camp

“I think I came home to too much support. (My family and I) had this conversation before I came home, ‘Guys, I need you to be behind me 100 percent. I need you to be there with me. When you see me slipping, I need you to catch me.’

“When I first started I actually was angry with my family. How did you let me get this way? That was before I had to look in the mirror about a lot of things about myself. It was so much easier to point fingers.

“So my family now was like, ‘We’re not going to let you get that big.’”

In a loving but direct way, Poles’ family followed through, asking, “When are we working out? Why are you eating that?”

“It was real intense,” Poles said.

After boot camp she moved in with her brother, Ryan, and his family.

“There were multiple, probably weeks in a row that I would have just slept in and said, ‘I’ll get in a workout at night.’ But he was there, 5 o’clock in the morning. ‘Get out of bed. We gotta do this.’”

Mingling in Miami

As reward for meeting her six-month weight loss goal, the show took her to meet her favorite basketball team, the Miami Heat.

“They rolled out the red carpet for me. My name was plastered on the front of the American Airlines Arena. Then inside all the screens around the entire arena, in the training facility, in the weight room, everything had ‘Congratulations, Kelli Poles.’”

Her new tummy

“That’s like your prize, basically. It’s the plastic surgery, which is like a $50,000 surgery. I had surgery in March. I love my new stomach.”

It was at that point that she lifted her shirt to show me the scar neatly circumventing her middle, front to back.

“They drew a line up here and a line down there. They literally cut you at both lines and remove (the skin) in between ... and make you a new belly button.

“They pull you up like pants, pull you down like a shirt and sew it back together.”

She’s not done yet

“It’s so funny because your family and friends expect you to come back and have everything figured out. We have tackled so many issues about ourselves, insecurities and everything else. But we didn’t have time to tackle everything.

“That’s the misunderstanding — that you’re going to go away and everything’s going to be cured.

“I have made huge steps, but I’m not, by any means, done. This is a lifelong journey of dealing with all of this. It’s going to take me a lifetime, and I’m going to stumble and I’m going to fall. But I now have the tools to get back up. That’s the difference between the new me and the old me.”

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, feature writer for The Kansas City Star, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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