Swept along London streets in a sea of blue shirts, I could feel the excitement mounting as my football team, Leicester City, prepared to take on Tottenham Hotspur. Little did I know that the stadium ahead was about to turn from theatre of dreams to the scene of my humiliation.
Outside White Hart Lane, I’d managed to squeeze myself into the tight, cage-like turnstile and go halfway round. Then my tummy had become caught in the revolving mechanism and I’d come to a stop. My arms were clamped against my sides, so I couldn’t free myself, and wriggling around didn’t seem to help.
‘It’s my coat,’ I told the people waiting behind me. ‘And I’ve got a big jumper on.’ I heard sniggering and tutting as they became impatient. A voice piped up: ‘Come on, mate, get a move on.’ Then someone gave me a push…and another. With their help, finally I was through. ‘Cheers,’ I mumbled, doing my best to disappear into the crowd. Thankfully, as this was an away game, I didn’t have my two young sons with me to witness my embarrassment.
I spent the quieter moments of the match mulling over just how heavy I’d become, painfully aware of my bottom spilling over both sides of the plastic stadium seat. Even the late winning goal couldn’t lift my spirits.
It wasn’t hard to figure out how I’d got here, weighing more than 25st and just squeezing into my size 5XL football shirt. For years I’d been a holiday rep based out in Greece and when I wasn’t working, I lived like I was on holiday, knocking back drinks and eating burgers, kebabs and chips. Then I’d become a resort manager in Egypt, where I met my wife, Chloe – it was love at first sight. Later I returned to the UK to be with her, taking a desk job for an online travel company. This involved lots of hotel stays away, where my dinners usually consisted of pub-style food such as pie and chips, followed by creamy desserts.
Over time, Chloe became quite concerned about my general health. Always a heavy snorer, I started having problems sleeping and would be tired during the day, even falling asleep at work. I was diagnosed with sleep apnoea and every night I had to wear a mask attached to a machine to stop my airway becoming blocked.
I remember one work trip away, alone in my hotel room getting ready for bed, I felt my chest tightening. I was sweating buckets, struggling to breathe. This is the end, I thought. I’m having a heart attack. Thankfully the feeling passed and I was able to attach myself to the machine and settle on the bed.
All night I was haunted by what might have happened. Could I have died in a foreign hotel room, all alone, a thousand miles away from my wife and our two boys? Elliot often compared me to Peppa Pig’s dad, telling me: ‘You’ve got a belly like Daddy Pig.’ I’d always laughed, along with Tobias who found it hilarious every time.
I wasn’t laughing now, though. I knew about Slimming World because my mum had been a target member for years and she often tried to encourage me to join – with Chloe firmly agreeing. In my mind, though, it just wasn’t for blokes. Then one evening I saw a video on Facebook of a young guy called Ollie who’d lost 25st and been crowned Slimming World’s Greatest Loser 2016. His story stayed with me.
Soon after, Leicester had won 4-0 and many people thought they could now actually win the Premier League. Not so long before, the odds of them doing that had been 5000-1! I started to wonder... If they could do so well against those odds, maybe I could succeed, too. I’d recently been made redundant and had some time on my hands.
Days later it was my wedding anniversary and I had a surprise for Chloe. ‘I’ve decided to join Slimming World,’ I told her. She hugged me. ‘That’s the best present I could wish for,’ she said. I found details of a local group in Dronfield and, after a swift text to Roz, the Consultant, to check if it really was OK for me to attend, I showed up on Monday night. As I walked into the group, any fears I’d had dissolved. There was such a mix of people: men, women, young, old, some wanting to lose 7lbs, others 7st. I sensed straight away that no one was judging me, and I was in a roomful of really positive, supportive people.
Back home, I made a shopping list and a meal plan that I resolved to follow to the letter.
I made omelettes for breakfast, had huge salads at lunchtime, then made some of the Food Optimising recipes Roz had shown me for dinner. Towards the end of the week, finishing off a lean steak and Slimming World chips with lots of veg, I realised I’d never once felt hungry.
The previous week, with a 2-2 draw between Chelsea and Tottenham, a miracle had happened – Leicester City won the Premier League! A huge victory parade through the city was planned for the following week. All the fans would be there to celebrate something they’d been waiting a lifetime for. And I had to be there – except it clashed with my Slimming World group. I realised I was more interested in seeing how much weight I’d lost in my first week, so I missed the parade. Far from being gutted, I knew it was worth it. I’d lost 8½lbs – and the congratulations from other members in the room made me feel even happier than any Leicester City win had ever done!
My sister told me about the Couch to 5K app, which gets you walking and gently running for 30 minutes, three times a week. I persevered with it and slowly, as I lost a stone, then another, it got easier. Eventually I ran not only a 5K but a 10K, a 20K and a half-marathon. Eventually, I completed my first marathon and it was the best feeling ever.
The more weight I lost, and the fitter I became, the more I felt ready to get back into work. With my new-found confidence I got a job with a wholesale travel agent and, from day one, I realised my work life would be very different. For a start, my new colleagues only knew me as the healthier and slimmer Neil. And old contacts had a surprise coming! The last time they’d seen me, I was wearing 54ins trousers – now I had a 34ins waist.
It was the reaction of my kids that touched me the most. One day, kicking a ball around with Elliot and Tobias – without getting out of breath at all – I gathered them up in my arms and Elliot said: ‘I’m so pleased you don’t have your big belly any more.’ Just 10 months after joining Slimming World, I’d reached my target of 15st 5lbs. It felt incredible. I love Body Magic and I've started training for my next marathon with the Slimming World London Marathon team.
Just like Leicester City, I had defied expectations and shown the world – and myself – what I could do when I put my mind to it. Now I genuinely feel like a champion!
*Weight loss will vary due to your individual circumstances and how much weight you have to lose.