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Sharlynn Nielsen
Orem resident Sharlynn Nielsen is pictured after losing 130 pounds. She is telling her story as part of a national advertising campaign - "12 Million Lives Changed" - by 24 Hour Fitness.

OREM — There was a time when Sharlynn Nielsen hated shopping because, unlike her third-grade classmates, she had to go to big and tall stores.

Then there was the time when the former Payson resident worried whether her 6-foot tall, 350-pound frame would fit in seats at the local theater.

There was even a time when she would think, "Who'd want to date me? I wouldn't want to date me."

Times change. And Nielsen decided she could, too.

Four years later and 130 pounds lighter, the 25-year-old enjoys seeing a size 20 dress sag on her shoulders. She's not afraid to wave and wink at a guy who's caught her eye.

Now she's got a message for any guy who might have promised to call or take her out, but left her waiting by the phone:

"One day you'll turn around, and you'll be sorry," she smiled, sitting confidently on a couch in her Orem condo.

Nielsen has become something of local celebrity at the 24 Hour Fitness in Provo, where she strained to shed nearly 38 percent of her body weight, said Kelly Behunin, the trainer who coached Nielsen through most of her weight-loss endeavor. Anybody who's frequented the gym probably knows her and her story.

Recently, Nielsen had a chance to share her weight-loss story with an audience beyond the local area as she was selected to be a part of 24 Hour Fitness' new advertising campaign, "12 Million Lives Changed." The campaign is meant to share actual gym members' stories to inspire other people. Nielsen is one of six who were selected from 12,000 applicants to share their story in a TV ad.

Her story goes back four years ago. Nielsen was boarding a plane to fly to New York for a family vacation in October 2004 when she realized she couldn't buckle her seat belt.

"I couldn't get it in," she said. "I pulled and I sucked in, but I couldn't get the seat belt to clasp."

A flight attendant offered her an extension, but she bashfully turned it down. She finally snapped the belt on, but it cut into her sides. For the entire flight she remained in her seat for fear she wouldn't be able to buckle up again if she took it off. She had to lift up the arm chair and use some of her sister's seat.

"I was so upset, I cried almost the whole flight," she said.

The family traveled all around New York, but one thought lingered in Nielsen's mind: her weight.

"I really need to do something about this," she thought. "Because I'm getting bigger."

Back in Utah, her parents were hesitant about hiring a trainer to work with her because she'd tried so many diets before and quit. But eventually, her mom relented and agreed to secretly split the cost with her on two conditions: don't tell dad and don't quit.

Nielsen started slowly, doing lunges and basic exercises while trainers coached her on diet. The weight slowly dropped off. In the first month, December 2004, she lost 12 pounds. By February 2005, she'd lost 30. But there were still obstacles — both physical and mental — that Nielsen needed to overcome.

When Nielsen was 50 pounds lighter, her trainer, Behunin, decided it was time for her to start running. He took her to the gym's basketball court on the first floor and told her to run five sprints. Nielsen didn't move a muscle.

"Ready. Go," Behunin said. Still nothing.

"No, I can't," she said. "I haven't run since fifth grade."

It was then Behunin realized that while Nielsen could run physically, in her mind she was still "the fat girl that couldn't run."

From then on, Nielsen's training included books like "Man's Search For Meaning" to help her gain a new perspective on life. Meanwhile, Nielsen started to run — for two minutes, at first. Then she joined a group of gym members who ran down Provo Canyon every Thursday night.

Now she's even completed three 5K races and two 10K runs — something she never thought she'd be able to do five years ago.

Nielsen's not finished yet. She'd like to lose 40 more pounds, but now she knows nothing is out of reach for her.

"I can do it," she said. "And I know I can do it."

It hasn't been an easy journey. There have been times when Nielsen has been so sore from training she's had to call her roommate on her cell phone to come downstairs to help her get out of bed. It's taken tremendous effort and desire for her to turn her life around, Behunin said.

"I literally don't recognize or know the Sharlynn I started training," he said.

"It's easy to say, 'I can't do this,' but no — absolutely anybody, you can determine which direction you want your life to go," he said. "That's what it takes, and Sharlynn shows you that."

Nielsen said anyone can accomplish what she did if they want to change.

"You have to want to be the person you can be," she said. "And you have to see that person, and you have to believe it's real."

Nielsen's 24 Hour Fitness ad can be found at www.12millionlives.com.


E-mail: jdana@desnews.com