'I was 21 stone and cried with guilt and shame after gorging on sweets ... then I joined a gym, lost weight and found love'
Derry man Sam Conley grew up as an obese teenager but when his health started to fail after his mother's death he joined a gym. He tells Lee Henry how that one decision changed his life forever
As transformations go, they don't come much more eye-catching nor as impressive as Sam Conley's. In the space of seven years, the Limavady-born former car dealer has gone from a dangerously heavy 21 stone to a lean, mean 15, and changed pretty much everything about his life in the process.
From his eating habits and his waistline to his profession, Sam has reinvented himself - and even finding love along the way.
Having "gone through a kind of hell" that saw him lead an unhealthy double life, scoffing chocolates and chips in the car before heading home for dinner, and even contemplating suicide in his "lowest, darkest moments", the 43-year-old has become the picture of healthy living, willpower personified.
In recent years, Sam has prevailed at international body building competitions, opened his own unique 'by appointment only' gym and transformed the lives of countless others inspired by his example as a personal trainer, nutritional specialist and motivational speaker. And later this year, he will release his first book, provisionally entitled My Body Transformation Unplugged: The Highs and Hells of a Fitness Journey.
It all started with an ill-fated visit to the tailors. "When I was 36, one Saturday afternoon I went to buy a new suit ahead of a wedding," he recalls. "Although I was overweight from childhood, as an adult I still clung to the notion that I remained a 38-inch waist, which was patently not the case, but that's what I asked for. Needless to stay, the trousers wouldn't pass my knees.
"The assistant came to check on me and when he saw the fit of the trousers, he laughed out loud. 'Mate, you're more like a 44', he said, and he was right, of course, but I couldn't handle it. So I dressed quickly, ran out off the shop and drove home to Limavady crying inconsolably. That weekend was terrible, awful. I was in shock. It had hit me for the first time just how badly I had let myself go."
The following Monday, he joined the gym. He had never set foot in one before. Quite the opposite - up until that point, in fact, he had spent his entire life wilfully overeating at every given opportunity. He looks back now at what he describes as an "irresponsible" attitude toward food that saw him go through education and adulthood clinically obese.
"My mother, Ann Edith Rutherford, was an amazing woman and the perfect mother, and my brother David and I had a fantastic childhood," Sam says. "We were fed good food, but I simply ate too much of it. I explain to clients now that too much good food will make you fat just like too much bad food will, and that was definitely the case with me.
"I had a sweet tooth, so chocolate, sweets and cakes were high on my agenda," he adds. "I was convinced that I didn't like vegetables, so they were always replaced with extra potatoes and meat. Levi 501s were the must-have item at that time, but I could never find them in my size. Even in my mid-teens I was putting away 1,000-2,000 calories of junk food a day without question. I have such piercing memories of my weight and how it bothered me growing up."
As is so often the case, Sam was the victim of bullying in primary and secondary school. He was "the fat kid", targeted by bullies who flushed his head down the toilet, teased him in the playground and physically assaulted him on a regular basis.
At grammar school, he dreaded PE. "I was traumatised by the showers after rugby, when my man-boobs were the in-joke, along with comments about me needing a bra. One of the most harrowing experiences had to be when we were required to play what they call T-shirts against skins games. Being made to participate shirtless haunts me to this day."
Nowadays, he observes, with obesity on the rise in the UK among children and adults, the sight of overweight kids in school uniforms is becoming the norm. It's a troubling trend that he works hard to contest when speaking in schools.
"I see a reversal today. Whereas I was the fat kid, now so many kids in schools are overweight and even morbidly obese. That makes me really sad," he says. "Thankfully, my two girls, Zara (12) and Lucy (8), really buy into what I do and they ask really good questions about food and diet. I love that they're aware. Without ever making food an issue, I gently steer them in the right direction so they never have to suffer like I did. They get their treats, of course, but they love healthy, home-cooked meals and exercise too."
The death of his mother 12 years ago was "devastating", and triggered an even more severe reliance on food. Sam's comfort eating "got out of control", and work did not help. At the time, he put in long hours every day as a car sales representative, a "highly stressful job, which facilitated starvation during the day, fuelling up with energy drinks and binging in the evenings".
"My secret eating really kicked off in my 20s, and continued into my married life," he admits. "I would buy multi-packs of chocolate bars, family-size bags of sweets, and devour them in my car in minutes. I'd frequently go for takeaway for everyone and order an extra meal, which I would eat in the car on the way home. The guilt and shame I'd later feel was horrendous and I'd cry myself to sleep on many occasions."
In an attempt to change his lifestyle, Sam opened his own motorcycle retail business, but remained dogged by "a deep sense of unhappiness", exacerbated by a faltering marriage. This unhealthy combination took its toll physically. "Just before my visit to the tailors, I was almost diagnosed with multiple sclerosis," he says.
"I'd lost the power in my left hand and it was a very frightening time, marked by scans and consultations, until an astute specialist probed further and uncovered the immense stress I was under. Shortly after, I signed up at the gym."
The prospect of working out among others surrounded by mirrors "terrified" Sam, but he stuck at it, taking the process of exercise "one day at a time", determined to break his previous bad habits and begin a new way of living. The results were immediate. "For a month I went to the gym four days a week and I lost a stone. After four months, I'd dropped four stones. I would go on to lose five and a half stones that first year."
Sam's marriage ultimately ended in divorce. However, he continued with his efforts to lose weight and says the pros of transforming his lifestyle have "far outweighed" the cons
He is now a qualified nutritional expert, writing diet plans for all sorts of people, and works with a loyal core of clients who attend his HQ Fitness Academy for its "privacy and non-judgemental atmosphere". The motto here is: "No classes, no posers, no egos," he points out.
"I know what it's like to go through that journey alone. Many of my clients have huge self-confidence issues, so I give them the best possible advice and support. It's about choosing your gym or your trainer wisely. My clients put their trust in me and that's a privilege."
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Sam's transformation, however, has been meeting his "soulmate" Cathy Boyd, also from Limavady. They initially met while attending the same gym, and struck up a relationship after Cathy requested he write her a diet plan.
"I never knew real happiness until Cathy came into my life, and that's a fact," he says. "When she asked me to write her a plan, I was star-struck. I would never have imagined that we would get together. The concept seemed inconceivable. She was this dream girl, in my eyes. We got engaged at the Eiffel Tower in Paris last January and I still can't believe we're getting married later this year.
"Cathy has turned her life around too and coaches with me at HQ and I couldn't be more proud of her. We love working together. We train together and are both super passionate about what we do, and she is also amazing with my girls. We're all so happy and content."
It's hard not to be inspired by Sam and his incredible transformation. From hopeless, unhappy overeater to disciplined, ripped PT and entrepreneur, his journey has touched the lives of hundreds of people here, and he has ambitions to spread his message of sustainable healthy living even further still.
"I get so many messages from people across the country, who have heard my story and saw fit to reach out for help. They frequently have me in tears. I'm on a mission to free as many people as possible from the misery I once felt. I tell them that everything is fixable, that age is irrelevant, and the only thing that matters is their desire to change. If you approach your change with that attitude, you're certain not to fail."
HQ Fitness Academy visit Facebook/Sam.Conley