07/10/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
During her annual physical four years ago, Judy Molnar, who was tipping the scales at 350 lbs., knew that her doctor would tell her—once again—that she ought to lose weight. But she wasn't prepared for the description that she saw on her chart: morbidly obese. "Those words just hit me really hard," Molnar, 34, recalls. "This was life and death here. I just thought to myself, 'Oh, my God, Judy, what have you done to yourself?' At that moment I decided to really learn how to eat right, exercise and get into shape. And this time, I was going to do it for me, for my health."
And this time it worked. Following the simple mantra of "eat less and move more," Molnar started running, biking and swimming—albeit slowly at first. "I knew I had to walk before I could run," she says with a laugh, "and I mean that literally." The first time she jogged a mile, it took 17 minutes. Now 140 lbs. lighter (at 6'1", she weighs 210 lbs.) and six dress sizes slimmer (from 26 to 14), Molnar is running sub-nine-minute miles—five miles a day five times a week—and has competed in 25 triathlons, her first just seven months after she started training. And she's eager to spread the word that if she can do it, so can anyone else.
Anyone like Rosie O'Donnell
. After Molnar competed in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Hawaii in 1998, Rosie invited her to move to New York City and become coach of her Chub Club, which had signed up 300,000 viewers who vowed to get into shape. In May 1999, after five months of training, 12,000 of them—including O'Donnell—finished a five-kilometer run. "Judy was a great inspiration to all of the Chub Club members," says O'Donnell, who featured Molnar on her show throughout last year. No longer on the show, the bubbly and perpetually positive Molnar now motivates others with a new book, You Don't Have to Be Thin to Win (Villard Books, $19.95), which shows how to gradually incorporate healthy eating and exercise into their lives.
Molnar herself never lacked motivation as a child. The fourth of five children born to Emery, 65, a retired security chief, and Evelyn, 64, a retired computer-support worker, in South Bend, Ind., Molnar loved sports. In middle school, she told her dad she wanted to try out for baseball. "I said, 'Don't you mean the Softball team, Judy?' " recalls Emery. "She said, 'No, Dad, I mean the baseball team. You know, the smaller, harder ball. With the boys.' Well, she did go out for the baseball team, and she made it."
Always the tallest kid in her class, Molnar embraced her amazonian stature. Her idol was Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the legendary golfer and Olympic track-and-field star who died in 1956. "She could do anything she wanted, and she was big," Molnar says. "I thought big was a good thing, something to aspire to." But her body image deteriorated after she went to Clemson University on a volleyball scholarship and a coach pushed her to diet down from her fit 180 lbs. to 150 lbs. "I started to resent working out because I felt I was in the best shape I had ever been in," says Molnar. After graduating in 1989, she took a desk job as an account executive in St. Joseph, Mich., and, she says, "each year I got a little heavier."
So 10 years later, when she crossed the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman and "the whole crowd that lined the route started chanting, 'Judy, Judy,' " says her dad, "it just brought tears to my eyes. It's something just about everybody told her she would never be able to do."
By exceeding these low expectations, "Judy changes a lot of lives," says her pal Paula Newby-Fraser, 38, a world-class triathlete and Molnar's partner in the Iron Girl athletic clothing line for plus-size women. When she defeats more experienced or thinner competitors, Newby-Fraser adds, "I know that often those athletes are thinking, 'Hey, this fat chick just beat me in a race.' It's wonderful!"
But according to Molnar, it shouldn't matter what anyone says. "It isn't the media's fault for your self-esteem problems," says Molnar, who recently moved to San Diego to be near fiancé Rick Wilson, 36, a Navy petty officer first class, whom she met while training for a triathlon. "If you accept yourself, it makes things easier. I'm a big girl. I'm okay with that."
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