A Franklin woman initially resisted her personal trainer’s idea that she enter a powerlifting competition.

Courtney Tooley gave in, and as she approached her 40th birthday, the woman who once weighed more than 450 pounds set to work to enter and win.

She has battled her weight all her life. Her parents worked long hours when she was a child, and meals were almost always grabbed on the go, rather than cooked at home.

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Even when they were, Tooley wasn’t in a hurry to reach for the vegetables.

“When she was younger, she was a very picky eater,” said her mother, Molly Lenyo. “It was hard to get her to eat anything except junk food.”

Once that pattern is established, it’s hard to break.

“When you grow up and your option is McDonald’s or Burger King, you continue to eat that way until you want to make the change yourself,” Tooley said.

A tragedy caused Tooley to opt for change. In February 2005, her oldest cousin committed suicide after struggling with addiction problems.

At that point, Tooley realized that her eating habits were just a slower path to the same destination — and she chose to do something about it, undergoing gastric bypass surgery in August 2005.

During the next nine months, she went from 455 pounds to 215. But gastric bypass is not a permanent solution on its own; without improvements in diet and fitness habits, the weight loss is unlikely to last. Sure enough, by the end of 2013, Tooley was again reaching the 300-pound mark.

Enough was enough.

“I don’t want to fall back into the old pattern and slide backward,” she said. “I don’t want to have to deal with being a diabetic and high blood pressure.”

A friend suggested School of Strength, a kettlebell-based fitness program at Center Grove High School by the Trojans’ strength and conditioning coordinator, Marty Mills.

Tooley decided to give it a try.

“I was like, ‘It’s 90 days; I can do it for 90 days,’ “ she said. “If I don’t like it, I don’t have to go back.”

The classes were a struggle for Tooley at first — when she started, she was unable to do a single proper squat lifting just her body weight, and she had a tough time getting through many of the exercises. But being around other people who were going through similar struggles helped keep her from getting discouraged.

“She wasn’t any different than anybody else that we get in that regard,” Mills said. “Nobody knows how to do that stuff.”

Three years later, Tooley has learned quite a bit.

On Jan. 28, the Franklin resident and 1995 Whiteland graduate traveled to Louisville to compete in her first officially sanctioned powerlifting meet, the Kentucky Open Raw Championship. She took first place in her weight class, setting new personal records in the deadlift, squat and bench press.

“I always said I never wanted to do a powerlifting competition,” Tooley said, “and finally (personal Jeremy Hartman) was like, ‘It’s small; it’s not a big one.’ So I said, ‘Fine, let’s do it.’

“Now I’m like, ‘OK, when are we doing our next one?’ “

Raising the bar

School of Strength is centered around exercises using kettlebells — weights with handles across the top, not unlike a purse. But it’s not a one-dimensional program. On some days, the focus shifts to barbell powerlifting — and for that, Mills turns to Hartman, a six-time USA Powerlifting national champion.Hartman coaches numerous top-tier powerlifters, including Franklin Community High School junior Kloie Doublin, who will be competing at the World Classic Powerlifting Championships in June in Minsk, Belarus.

None of Hartman’s credentials mattered much to Tooley the first time she trained with him, though. All she cared about was how tough his workouts were.

“I couldn’t stand Jeremy when I first met him,” she said with a laugh.

“We have a love-hate relationship, but he for sure knows how to motivate somebody to do something.”

Eventually, Tooley started training with Hartman outside of the class, and that has gradually become an almost exclusive arrangement. Tooley still does the occasional kettlebell class, but she finds working with barbells to be more of a challenge.

She also feels like she gets more out of her workouts when she has more personal attention and fewer distractions.

“The one-on-one had me a little bit more focused,” Tooley said. “When I’m here, when I’m with Coach Hartman, it’s time to focus on myself.

“It helps with stress and all that; I can just not think about anything else but what’s right in front of me.”

It’s showtime

During the early stages of her fitness journey, Tooley signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon’s medal series, which required a commitment to complete a number of half-marathons each year between 2014 and 2017.The races can take a toll on any runner’s body, but Tooley was particularly susceptible to injury because of the extra weight on her frame combined with a lack of developed muscle.

“She kept getting injured because she wasn’t strong enough to do stuff, so she started strength training more,” Hartman said. “That helped her accomplish her goals with running — and then she fell in love with strength training.”

Becoming proficient at lifting took some time, though. Hartman notes that it took Tooley a year just to get strong enough to do the basic lifts properly. Undeterred, Tooley kept coming back, and little by little she started adding more weight to those lifts.

Tooley still has two more half-marathons to do to complete the series, something she and Hartman rarely talk about because race training interferes with strength training and “he’s not a fan.” But lifting has replaced running as Tooley’s pastime of choice, and she says she’s unlikely to try tackling any more races once she’s finished the ones already on her list.

“I’ve noticed that when I do go run, I just don’t enjoy it like I used to, like I enjoy this,” she said. “This is just different.”

Instead, she’s eagerly awaiting her next show — or, perhaps more accurately, waiting for Hartman to let her know when that’s going to be.

With her birthday coming up on July 30, Tooley is already looking forward to moving up into the masters division (40 and up). She has every intention of attacking the state records in that age group, starting with the deadlift mark of 379.5 pounds.

Tooley’s deadlift of 270 pounds in her first competition was 25 pounds above her previous best, and she’s aiming for 300 at her next meet — a figure that should be well within reach given her recent incremental gains.

Just a number

The numbers she’s putting up in the gym and in competition are far more important to Tooley than the one she sees on the scale.Depending on where she is in her training — cardio gets cut out in preparation for powerlifting competitions — Tooley’s weight has bounced around in the low 200s for the past three years.

Whether it gets much lower than that will depend largely upon whether Tooley opts for surgery to remove what she estimates is about 40 to 45 pounds of excess skin. It’s a move she hasn’t yet made a firm decision on.

More important to Tooley than how much she weighs is how she feels. And right now, she’s feeling pretty good.

“I’m not trying to be 120 pounds,” she said. “I want to be healthy. That’s ultimately what it’s all about for me.”

“Even before my surgery, I didn’t have any of the complications that come with being overweight, and I don’t want to have them now. The heart problems and the sleep apnea and all that stuff.”

“I don’t take any medication now, and I don’t want to take any in 10 years or 20 years or however long I live.”

By making major changes to her lifestyle, Tooley likely has extended her life. Her mother, for one, is happy to see it, and she hopes that Courtney’s story can inspire others to get healthier.

As Hartman is quick to point out, though, there are no easy solutions when starting from where Tooley did.

“A lot of people, they want a quick fix or they want to do something in a couple of months,” he said. “This (competition) was over a year in the making.”

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Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.