Setting foot inside a gym for the first time can be a frightening experience for anyone who weighs more than 300 pounds. Just ask Lorena Ortega.
The 42-year old Huntington Beach wife and mother of four, who had always been overweight and never worked out a day in her life, ended up at the gym in June after a former high school classmate called her out on social media.
It began when Ortega posted to Facebook asking for her friends to support the Surf City 10K, which donates to a charity she works with. A Golden West College employee in the intercultural department, she also serves on the board of Project Self Sufficiency, which offers support to single parents working toward educational goals.
"When I read the part [of her post] that said, 'For obvious reasons I won't be joining the team,' that didn't sit well with me, because I don't like people making excuses when I know for a fact that they can compete," said Joe Rose, Ortega's classmate from La Quinta High School in Westminster.
The public banter continued, with Rose saying, "We have four months until the 10K; I know you can do it."
He sweetened the challenge by offering to donate $20 for each kilometer that Ortega finished.
But his offer to train her himself sealed the deal.
"I was scared, so I kept coming up with excuses such as, 'I'm too fat,' 'I'll make a fool of myself,' 'I'm too busy' and 'I don't have running shoes,'" Ortega said. "This tore me up to be publicly challenged, but you don't say 'No' when publicly challenged, and I realized that in order to ask for support from everyone, I should at least attempt to do this."
When she learned that the training would take place at an actual gym instead of a park, she freaked out. Not just self-conscious about others looking at her, she was more worried about seeing herself in the mirrors that seem to be a fixture in every gym.
Seven days later, after not seeing each other in 25 years, Ortega and Rose met at the Training Zone, a gym on 17th street in Costa Mesa where Rose was a regular client. Some of her anxieties subsided when she met owners Sean Canova and Trevor Duncan.
"The minute I met Sean and Trevor, I immediately felt at home. They even gave me a hug," she said.
Soon, Canova was acting as her guardian, pulling Rose aside to point out that he was forcing Ortega to work out too hard for someone her size.
To demonstrate the difference between a 185-pound person and a 324-pound person doing the same exercise, Canova strapped a backpack filled with heavy slam balls onto Rose's back and then handed him a pair of barbells.
Canova could be described as a benevolent dictator when it comes to exercise. He's like a drill sergeant who gives orders followed by praise.
In addition to Canova's encouragement, Ortega received a lecture on nutrition and the importance of changing her relationship with food.
"I never cared about calories, and now everything about my diet would need to change," she said.
She would have to trade the breakfast burritos, cheeseburgers, French fries and daily Frappuccinos for steel cut oats, lean meat, fruits and vegetables.
When the session was over, Ortega said, it blew her mind when Canova sent her home with a bungee rope and exercise homework adding, "I'll see you next Wednesday."
That was when she realized that if she wanted to be healthier, she would have to become accountable to herself as well as others.
Between July and February, Ortega lost 75 pounds and finished the 10K race that began her journey toward personal empowerment. She also hasn't had fries or a Frap in 229 days.
The successes haven't come easy, and many tears have been shed along the way.
"I couldn't have done it without Sean, Trevor and Joe," said Ortega, who continues to work out four days a week toward a goal of perhaps being heavy but not obese.
The support that Ortega received is indicative of the Training Zone philosophy, which has always been to bring fitness to anybody who has the desire and commitment regardless of financial ability, Canova said.
"Not one person has ever been turned away because they couldn't afford to work out," he said.
Ortega's transformation spurred Canova, Duncan, Rose and her to create the nonprofit Lori's Home — short for Lorena — with the purpose of making exercise available to everyone.
"This is about removing barriers to exercise," Canova said. "We want to have a facility that allows anybody to improve their health and have a better life, no excuses. Fitness has always been for wealthy people, not for lower income. Even middle class is not in a position to spend hundreds of dollars on a personal trainer. We want to provide the opportunity to anyone who really wants to change their life."