Biggest Loser's Daniel Wright 'I'm Not Giving Up!'

updated 02/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2009 AT 01:00 AM EST

NOW 353 LBS.


A week before arriving in Los Angeles to compete on The Biggest Loser: Couples, Daniel Wright went for a walk on his grandfather's 20-acre property in Willow Spring, N.C. "One lap around it would have been a mile. But three-fourths of the way, on flat ground, shoot—I had to sit down!" Wright, 19, recalls. "My ankles hurt, my back hurt, everything. I thought I could die."

It was the fear his life would be cut short "because I had eaten so much for so long," Wright says, that led him (along with best friend David Lee, 23) to sign up for Biggest Loser's seventh season. At 5'8" tall and 454 lbs., Wright earned featured billing—and breakout stardom—as the show's heaviest contestant of all time. But the distinction also left him at a disadvantage: Because success on the show is gauged by the percentage of body weight a contestant loses, "I might have had to lose 20 lbs. to be the same as someone who lost only 10 or 12 lbs.," says Wright, who managed to shed 60 lbs. in four weeks before being eliminated in the Jan. 27 episode.

As Wright is quick to point out, however, his end on the show has been the beginning of a major life change: Since returning home to Willow Spring, the teen has drastically changed his eating and exercise habits (see box below for details) to lose an additional 41 lbs.—and he plans to lose another 100 lbs. by the show's May 12 finale. "I want to show kids my age," he says, "that you can change."

For Wright, the change has been a long time coming. Although he grew up in a fit, active family—his parents regularly play tennis and his sister is a cheerleader at Wake Christian Academy—he has struggled with his weight since childhood. As a toddler, he suffered from respiratory problems, for which he was prescribed antibiotics and steroids, "which made him hungry all the time," says his mom, Denise Haughney, 49, a computer programmer.

By the age of 12, Wright was so overweight he failed to make his soccer team and was diagnosed as a borderline type 2 diabetic; his parents tried to keep him from overeating—but, he admits, "if cookies were off-limits, I would grab as many as possible." Diets didn't work, either; in 10th grade, Wright lost 50 lbs. by restricting himself to 1,000 calories a day. But the weight quickly crept back on "because I lost it in such an extreme way," he says.

His time on Loser appears to have provided the breakthrough Wright was looking for. In his final episode, he endured a tough confrontation with trainer Jillian Michaels during a workout. In that moment, "all I could think about was, I want to go home, sit on my couch and eat ice cream," Wright says. "And what I realized is, rather than facing the fears that come up in life, I retreat—and eat."

These days Wright prefers to show off the life changes that come with his changing body. Recently "he took a picture of himself in the car with a seat belt on," says his stepfather, Jim Haughney, 53, a manager at IBM, "because for the first time he didn't have to use an extension."

Wright is also finally able to look toward the future without fear. This fall, he plans to enroll at the College at Southeastern, a school of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in hopes of becoming a pastor. "But in order to do that, I have to lose the weight," he says. "I've got to be here if I want to take care of people!"

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