When 500 Pounds Was Too Much

By Emily Beers – October 4th, 2018

In January 2017, one of Olivia Sewell’s good friends was killed in a motorcycle accident. But while others said their graveside goodbyes, Sewell stayed behind.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to get off the bus and walk the 200 meters and then stand there for very long, so I waited on the bus,” said the 5-foot-5 Sewell, who weighed 511 lb. at the time of the funeral. “My friend was a policewoman who wanted to change the world, and there I was at 38 years old with a body that I was killing slowly—to the point that I couldn’t even stand at her grave.”

Devastated by her inability to honor her friend, Sewell vowed to make a change.

“I went home and was sitting looking at Facebook and an ad came up from Deanna (Mawson) advertising personal training, and something happened in my head. I thought, ‘This might be the moment,’” Sewell said.

ALT TEXTOlivia Sewell (right) discovered CrossFit via an ad for personal training with CrossFit Wangaratta owner Deanna Mawson (left). (Courtesy of Deanna Mawson)

She reached out to Mawson, the owner of CrossFit Wangaratta in Victoria, Australia, and booked an introductory session.

“I was so petrified that first day. Deanna was lovely, but we had to walk upstairs to get to the private personal-training area, and all I could think was ‘I just hope nobody is watching me right now,’ because I was just so embarrassed,” said the now-40-year-old, who works for the Department of Education and Training in Victoria.

“But I knew it was my only chance. I had so many issues at the time: Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, and my ankles would ache and throb and pulse all the time,” she added.

Until that first meeting with Mawson, Sewell had all but given up on herself.

Even as a kid, she had an “exceptionally unhealthy relationship with food,” she said.

“I was always bigger than my siblings. … I can’t remember a time that I didn’t feel very self-conscious and awkward in my body. It got to a point where I thought, ‘What’s the point of worrying about it anymore?’ I gave up on ever being a normal weight again,” Sewell continued.

ALT TEXT“If I don’t, you’re going to die,” Sewell’s doctor said after being asked to clear Sewell for training. (Courtesy of Deanna Mawson)

Before Sewell started training with Mawson, she went to her doctor for medical clearance.

“My doctor didn’t hesitate to sign the form. She told me, ‘If I don’t, you’re going to die,’” Sewell said.

The first physical test she remembers doing with Mawson: a 400-meter walk.

“It took me 22 minutes,” Sewell said.

More challenging movements—such as burpees and squats—were not available to Sewell then, but Mawson encouraged her to continue. Mawson also helped Sewell with her diet, which made all the difference in the world, Sewell explained.

“Before CrossFit, my diet consisted of takeaway food, fast food, packaged food, processed foods. I was so tired and my body just hurt all the time, so I did whatever I could to make getting food quick and easy,” she said.

Sewell added: “If I did ever cook, I would sit down to prepare everything and then walk over to the stove to stir something and then go and sit down again.”

The moment Sewell started CrossFit, she abandoned her old ways and adopted a high-protein diet, eliminating all processed foods.

“I haven’t had rice or pasta or bread since February 2017. The only carbs I eat are vegetables. I can’t even fathom the kind of food I used to eat,” said Sewell, who also eliminated soda.

Changing her diet and working out three to four days a week has helped Sewell lose more than 200 lb. since February 2017. Her blood pressure has also returned to normal—a healthy 110/80 mmHg the last time she had it measured. Although Sewell was never put on medication for Type 2 diabetes—her doctor had always told her to change her diet first—her blood-sugar levels are now in the normal range, she explained.

“Any sign of diabetes is gone now,” Sewell said.

ALT TEXTBefore CrossFit, Sewell weighed 511 lb., had Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, and could not walk or stand without pain.

ALT TEXTAfter a year and a half of CrossFit and good nutrition, Sewell is down 200-plus lb. Her blood pressure is normal and she’s no longer diabetic. (Both: Courtesy of Olivia Sewell)

While those measurements give her confidence that she’s getting healthier, Sewell is even more comforted by the way she feels.

“I’m not in pain anymore. My ankles don’t ache. I used to get these little heart flutters in my chest that made me sweat and get anxious. They were going to medicate me for it, but I haven’t had one of those episodes in seven months,” she said.

Sewell has also noticed her skin, nails and hair look and feel healthier now too.

“I look back at old photos of me and think about how I felt every day—sometimes I would just hope that maybe I would just die in the night so I wouldn’t be a burden anymore—and now I’m thinking, ‘What mountain can I climb next weekend?’” she said. “I’m not even the same person I was. I was so sad and so tired all the time, and I didn’t realize how close to being bed-bound I was. I needed help getting off the couch. I could barely get out of my car. It was awful.”

These thoughts had caused Sewell to continuously postpone her wedding to partner Mark Dolphin.

“I would say we weren’t having a wedding because of money or raising the kids or whatever, but the real reason was I couldn’t cope with that many people in public. There’s no way I would have enjoyed a wedding,” she said.

In April 2018, she and Dolphin finally tied the knot after a 25-year partnership. Their three children made up the wedding party.

“I wore a dress for the first time in 20 years. It was an amazing day. I was just really happy,” she said.

ALT TEXTSewell’s newfound fitness gave her the confidence to stand before her friends and family in a wedding dress. (Courtesy of Olivia Sewell)

Even though Sewell has not yet reached her goal of being under 200 lb., she’s thrilled with the progress she’s made, she said.

“It’s a journey. I always thought the only way I’d be happy was if I was thin, but I’m not thin yet, but I’m so happy,” she said.

The physical gains she has made are icing on the cake, she added.

Walking 400 meters no longer takes her 22 minutes.

“I can walk 5 kilometers no problem now. I even go for 1-kilometer walks at lunch at work,” said Sewell, who can also do burpees and ring rows and recently learned how to skip.

“I don’t do box jumps yet, but I can jump on weight plates 20 centimeters off the ground,” she said.

Coaching Sewell has been a dream, Mawson said.

“She always does everything I ask of her, without complaint. Maybe a little sly eyebrow raise here and there, but she never complains. Ever. We laugh a lot, often to the point where others ask if we ever do any work,” said Mawson, who reiterated that Sewell works incredibly hard.

ALT TEXTA 200-m walk no longer poses a challenge for Sewell, who recently completed a 5-k fun run. (Courtesy of Deanna Mawson)

Even more impressive than her client’s physical transformation is her personal growth, Mawson continued.

“Since losing all her weight, I feel like Liv has come alive. She’s able to be who she is and who she has wanted to be. She has the confidence to take on things she has always dreamed of, such as a 5-kilometer fun run, bush walking, getting on a stationary bike, getting married, going on a cruise, booking tickets to see Pink. She’s now able to live her life,” she said.

Sewell’s next goal is to hike the Kokoda Track, a 96-km hike in Papau New Guinea that takes anywhere from four to 12 days.

“That’s the ultimate goal. It will be like the ultimate celebration,” Sewell said.

Through it all, Sewell holds on to her late friend’s memory.

Before she passed, Sewell’s friend had given her a card, “make your dreams happen” written inside. The phrase resonated with Sewell because it reminded her you have to “take responsibility and make them happen,” Sewell explained.

She had the words tattooed on her arm as a reminder.

“I had to make a decision and make it happen for myself. It has been about accountability and deciding that I wanted to live. That’s what the tattoo means to me,” Sewell said.

Every time Sewell steps into CrossFit Wangaratta, she’s reminded of her choice to achieve her goals—a choice she will never regret.

“The truth is the feeling of being able to pick up a dumbbell or a barbell or do a ring row is so much better than being able to put that piece of cake in my mouth,” she said.

About the Author: Emily Beers is a CrossFit Journal contributor and coach at CrossFit Vancouver. She finished 37th at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games.

Cover image: iStockphoto.com/1001Love

This article was originally published on the CrossFit Journal. You can find it here.

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About The Author

Neil Scholtz

Neil Scholtz is a certified Personal Trainer turned CrossFit coach. He has competed at the CrossFit Games and coached athletes that have competed at the CrossFit Games, but that's not his main focus. Most of his time is spent consulting or coaching individuals to improve their lives through fitness. He has worked with over 1000 individuals from various walks of life. Tailoring solutions to their lifestyle needs.