At 335 pounds, Sue Reynolds secretly daydreamed about running triathlons. She lost 200 pounds, finished her first triathlon and, along the way, found the best version of herself—both physically and spiritually. Three years after completing her first triathlons, she finished sixth in the world (and first American) at the World Triathlon Championship.
Outside of triathlon, Sue founded the American Student Achievement Institute, a non-profit organization helping community leadership teams transform their community and school to help all students, especially lower-income students, achieve at a high level. She also provides motivational keynote speeches for associations, corporations, athletic groups, educational groups, and faith-based events across the country.
What started you on your athletic “divine detour”?
At 335 pounds, I was frustrated with all the things that I couldn’t do because of my size and lack of fitness. I couldn’t fit into a restaurant booth, stand and talk at the same time without gasping for air, or even reach around my belly to put on my own shoes and socks. If I dropped something on the floor, I had to find someone else to pick it up, because I couldn’t reach the floor with my hands. One day, I just got fed up with not being able to do things. I remember sitting at the breakfast table and saying loudly, “Enough!” At that point I started making different choices.
When did you decide to write about your journey?
After losing 200 pounds and competing at national and world championships, lots of people told me I should write a book, but I didn’t think my life was that interesting. But then, I remembered the woman I read about online who lost 100+ pounds and remembered how much her story had inspired me. I wondered if my story could be that inspiration for others.
Shortly after that a TV reporter asked to do a story about me. Hearst Television made a short video with film from that interview and posted it on Facebook. It had almost 300,000 views and hundreds of people wrote that my story had inspired them. After that, I decided that God was calling me to share my story.
I had no idea if it was worth my time to write a book so I went to a writer’s conference where participants would be able to meet with a literary agent for ten minutes. I wanted to ask the agent if she thought anyone would want to read a book about my story.
She replied, “Yes . . . (big pause) . . . and I’d like to offer you a contract right now!”
So, I had a contract but no book — and no idea how to write a book! It took me a year to figure out how to start writing a book, another year to write the chapters, and then a third year to edit the manuscript with my publisher. Along the way, I discovered that I love writing!
Let’s talk about the book, The Athlete Inside: The Transforming Power of Hope, Tenacity, and Faith (Fortress Press, April 2020). Please tell us about it.
The Athlete Inside follows my journey as I lost 200 pounds and progressed from someone who couldn’t walk a block to an athlete who represented the United States at the World Triathlon Championship and finished sixth in the world. I still shake my head in wonder when I think about how far I’ve come.
More specifically, the book shares the challenges I faced during my journey, like the fear of my first exercise — a short walk to the neighbor’s driveway, the struggle to find a new identity when I was no longer obese, the emotions I experienced as I stood at the start line at my first international competition.
I learned to face those challenges and many others through hope, tenacity, kindness from others, and my faith. I never imagined there would be a spiritual side to my journey, but that journey is in the book too as I share how my son and triathlon coach helped me reconnect with God through their everyday discipleship.
The unique intergenerational relationship between me and my young coach is woven throughout the book. Younger than my own sons, Coach Brant earned my trust, built my confidence, and challenged me to dream. He also taught me how deep one’s faith can be when his family faced a crisis prior to my first World Championship. Ultimately, the book is a story of how each of us can discover amazing gifts and talents within ourselves.
You’re donating the proceeds from the book to the USA Triathlon Foundation. Please tell us about the foundation.
So many people helped me during my journey, that I want to pay-it-forward by using the book’s proceeds to help others. The mission of the USA Triathlon Foundation is to transform lives through sport. Since triathlon transformed my life, the foundation seemed like the perfect fit.
The Foundation focuses on opening access to triathlon and supports initiatives that provide opportunities for 1) every child to participate, 2) every paratriathletes (triathletes with disabilities) to compete, and 3) every young athlete to chase his or her Olympic dream. In the book, I write about a paratriathlete in my community who inspires me to work through obstacles. Knowing how inspiring paratriathletes can be to others, I’m earmarking 100% of the book’s proceeds to support the Foundation’s work with paratriathletes.
A few fun questions…
What is your favorite part of triathloning (i.e. swimming, cycling, or running)?
I enjoy all three sports, but my favorite is cycling. There’s just something so satisfying about using my muscles to power a machine resulting in forward motion. I feel child-like joy when I’m riding my bike and the wind is against my face. I often want to yell, “Wheeeee!” Of the three, cycling is my best event. In my first World championship, I finished first in the world for the bike portion of the triathlon.
What Bible passage or story best describes your journey of faith?
The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) best describes my journey. While I never stopped going to church each Sunday, my relationship with God fell silent for reasons that I explain in the book. However, when I had lost around 90 pounds, my journey began feeling surreal. I felt like things were happening to me, rather than as a result of my actions. I finally came to understand that God was reaching out to me.
In spite of me turning my back on God, He was there with open arms and had never stopped loving me. Like the prodigal son, I was lost, but then, I was found. I am so grateful that God used my weight loss, triathlon, and the kindness of others to reach out to me.
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
What a fun question! I think several of these people reside within me. When I started triathlon, I was certainly the little girl, except rather than trying to walk in high heels, I was trying to ride a bike without falling down!
After conquering my pride and so many fears as I fast-tracked to the World Championship, I now see myself as the strong, female lead. I know I have the strength required to conquer any mountain I chose to climb. While I am not the girl next door, I hope I’m the grandma next door who possesses wisdom and kindness.
I’m a dog lover. Please tell us about your pets, if any, or your favorite pet as a child.
My favorite pet as a child was a toy fox terrier dog named Pete. On Christmas morning as a seven-year-old, I opened a large box wrapped in Christmas paper and to my delight, Pete jumped out! We were inseparable. My husband and I now live with Tucker, a very spoiled Boglen Terrier whose favorite game is to throw his ball down the stairs so we will run to get them — over and over! Kind of like fetch with role reversal!
Thank you, Sue! It’s great to have you as a guest at Divine Detour.
Thank you for this opportunity to further share my story. Hopefully, it will give people hope that they too can chase their dreams!
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