A year ago, Emily Grogan was standing in the middle of coach Debbie Wiley’s gym class as her peers completed basketball drills around her.
The eighth-grade student was physically unable to participate, a moment that served as the catalyst she needed to make a healthy lifestyle change.
“My mindset was totally different,” Emily said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t care. I don’t care if I get big.’ I was very different.”
Today, she’s a freshman at North Hall High School, 30 pounds lighter and making better health decisions for her future while fighting a battle against obesity many young people face.
Moving to North Hall Middle School and meeting Wiley started the wheels turning and sparked the initial conversation that has changed her life.
“She’s so loud,” Emily said of Wiley. “I was like, ‘How am I going to deal with this?’”
But in the middle of those basketball drills, all Emily could do was stand.
“I felt very upset because I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t,” she said.
After class, she went up to Wiley to ask for help. It was a move that caught the teacher by surprise.
“I said, ‘Are you OK with me? You’re opening the green light for me to help,’” Wiley said.
Wiley began by having Emily step on the scale.
“That Tuesday, we weighed myself,” Emily said. “I didn’t think I would weigh 318 pounds. I started at 318 pounds.”
The journey to 318 pounds began for Emily when she was in fifth grade. Prior to that, she loved being active and going outside. That changed as she got older.
“Around fifth grade, people started being rude to me,” she said. “They started making fun of me. And, I don’t know, I just kind of took (eating) up as a release to feel kind of better.”
She said depression took over; she would return home from school only to grab a snack and retreat to her room. That pattern continued through her middle school years, until Wiley’s eighth-grade class.
It wasn’t until the 2012 Thanksgiving holiday break that Emily began to change after Wiley went to her house and they walked the mile loop to the nearby lakefront together.
“That hill up is horrible,” Emily said. “I couldn’t ... I had to stop three times just to get up the hill.”
But as she kept going for walks and participating in gym class, she began to feel better. Suddenly, exercise wasn’t so difficult.
Other things became easier as well.
“I started noticing the change around Christmas,” she said. “I noticed that my back wasn’t hurting as much, that I had more energy in everything I did. I could pay attention better in class. Everything improved a lot.”
Early in 2013, she reached her first milestone.
“Every Tuesday, we walk into (the nurse’s) office,” Emily said. “Coach Wiley weighs me and stuff like that.
“I saw that I was 299 pounds, and I started to cry. I was so happy. And then I vowed I would never go back to 300 ever again.”
It’s a promise she’s kept, though both Emily and Wiley admit the road has been difficult. Emily said her biggest challenge is eating healthier. While she loves cucumbers, she said it’s difficult for her to have access to fresh fruits, vegetables and whole-grain breads.
She also said it’s difficult for her to remain motivated to exercise. When that happens, she pulls out a box of motivational quotes Wiley gave to her throughout last school year.
“I can tell a lot of times in her ‘teenaged-ness’ that she’s trying to decide if it’s really worth it or not,” Wiley said. “And it’s hard to make a teenager understand that it’s going to affect her whole life.”
Over the summer, Emily attended Camp Strong4Life, an initiative of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. She called it “the greatest thing ever.”
“We walked a mile; they gave us snacks,” she said. “The food, it tasted like normal food. We had snacks throughout the day. They were oranges and stuff like that. And all we drank was water. That was really good.
“And you were always so busy. You were never just sitting down, except for rest hour.”
This year, Emily has moved on to the high school, where she is now under the physical education instruction of coach Kristi House.
“Emily works hard in class and has continued to progress in meeting her goals,” House said. “She comes into class each day and works as hard as she can to meet the challenge head-on.”
In total, Emily said she has lost around 30 pounds. Her ultimate goal is to reach 150 pounds, but it’s not just about the number on the scale.
“Even if I don’t get to there, I just want to be able to do stuff,” she said. “I want to be able to run a mile under 20 minutes. I want to be able to do a pushup, normally. Get more than, like, five crunches on the Fitnessgram.”
Emily’s fitness level, along with her peers, is now tracked annually through Georgia’s participation with Fitnessgram. Georgia law requires each school district to participate in the annual fitness assessment program.
She also plans to join the school’s volleyball team at some point. Beyond high school, she wants to become a general surgeon.
For her part, she accepts that she’s committing to a lifestyle change.
“This is probably the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do in my life,” she said. “It’ll be with me forever. But once you get that goal ... you will feel so great. Like, even losing weight, even when I reach my small weight goals, I feel so great about myself. My confidence is boosted so much.”
“It’s a process, and it’s a slow process,” Wiley said. “And for teenagers, that’s hard.
“She’s so smart,” Wiley added. “I think it’s deeply imprinted. Now it’s just putting it all into action.”
Emily is not comfortable with her story being considered inspirational, but she hopes she can help others by sharing her background and her goals.
“I want to help people who are going through the same problem,” she said. “Because I know what it feels like to feel so tired just because of your weight, and you haven’t even done anything. I know what it feels like to be bullied just because of the way you look, just because you’re bigger than everybody else. I never want anybody to go through that, and I want people to live long, healthy lives.”