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Hard Truths Spur Florida Child, Mom to Combat Obesity, Find Tennis Success

January 3, 2013 10:58 AM
by Rick Vach, www.ustaflorida.com
 
"If you played on the courts you would break them in half."
 
 
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Mary Ann and Micki before undertaking their journey to health
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Mary Ann and Micki after losing a combined 160 pounds
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Appearing on the Oprah Show
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Micki on the tennis court this year, competing in USTA Florida rookie-level tournaments in her age group
Today you couldn't imagine that the fit, blonde tennis whirlwind that is 12-year-old Micheala "Micki" McNutt was once, in her own words, "too overweight to play tennis." Since then she has endured a journey that has included overcoming bullying, the mystique of food labeling, an appearance on the Oprah Show, and peers telling her 'You'll never do it' to not only get fit, but to start a campaign to take on the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
 
"When I was overweight I tried playing with my friend one time, and I could barely hit the ball," Micki said of her early struggles with the sport she came to love by watching Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams on TV. "I never thought I could play."
 
Enduring ridicule from other players her age, tennis became purely a spectator sport for the then-9-year-old Micki.
 
"She would sit and watch kids play -- but was too embarrassed to try herself," said her mother Mary Ann. "A boy made a comment to her that if she played on the courts it would break them in half. So Micki then would just watch the Tennis Channel for hours."
 
Micki was miserable, and Mary Ann realized that a family lifestyle change was in order. Mary Ann had recently lost her best friend to cancer, and took consolation in eating.
 
"Eating became, I guess you could say, my drug of choice to feel better, and I took [Micki] with me," Mary Ann said.
 
What followed was a complete overhaul of the family's diet, and educating themselves about calories and exercise. And facing some tough truths.
 
"It's the hardest thing to take responsibility for as a parent, because no one wakes up and says, 'I think I'll make my kid fat today.' That's just not what you do, but it can be fixed," Mary Ann said. "Really the parents have to buy in, because Micki doesn't have a car, or a checking account, so she's literally a hostage to whatever I bring in this house. I had to take responsibility that I did this to her."
 
The first step was watching what foods came in to the Englewood, Fla., family's household, and together strictly analyzing the food labels on each item for nutritional and caloric content. While she was in the gifted program at her school, Micki had never learned how to read food labels.
 
"I used to think that a serving was one plate," Micki said. "Now that I realize it's not, and my mom taught me to read the food labels, now I want to teach other kids, because it's such a crucial part of becoming healthy. Serving sizes on labels are everything -- without that I probably wouldn't have been able to lose weight."
 
Mary Ann and Micki spent hours in the grocery store, reading and comparing food labels, and at home Mary Ann put together a "fit kit" using measuring cups and a food journal.
 
The second step was to "get moving," and incorporate exercise into their daily routines. Once they eased into exercise regimens, Micki found a tennis coach who taught her the basics of the game, and on into advanced lessons and more competitive play as she lost weight.
 
"It took us about one year to lose 160 pounds together," said Mary Ann. "One hundred pounds for me and 60 for her."
 
In school Micki had written a class essay on Oprah Winfrey, identifying her as an individual she admired who had also overcame great odds.
 
"I learned how she beat the odds going to Chicago, and people thought she couldn't do it," Micki said. "It definitely reminded me of when I was losing weight, and people thought I couldn't do it. So I feel like we both beat the odds. Being on her show really inspired me to start my foundation, Freedom2bfit."
 
Micki, with the help of her mother, wanted to raise money to distribute to programs that combat childhood obesity, while taking what they had learned to tackle that task themselves. They have started the Freedom2bfit Facebook page, and are currently seeking funding and support to assist other families and children."
 
"[Following the Oprah appearance] we literally got hundreds of e-mails from parents saying 'Help me, I've done this to my child, help me, help me,' and we couldn't keep up with it," Mary Ann said. "That's when we realized we needed a website. Anywhere we go now, people will stop us in the grocery store, saying 'How did you do it, what do I do?' There were some kids at school that were overweight and their parents would say, 'Help me pack a [healthy] lunch,' and all those are things we want to do. There was no magic pill, but it wasn't that hard once I figured it out. You're not going to take a kid that eats a package of Oreos in a closet to eating a carrot stick. That's just a set-up for failure. But you can baby-step it into the right portions, so that eventually the Oreos turn into something different. The message we want to share is that it's very do-able."
 
Also on their to-do list is grocery store tours to educate kids on labels and making good food choices; helping children with advice on bullying; and creating new athletic clothing options for overweight children.
 
"A big step was starting to wear the Nike clothes when I started to get healthy," Micki said. "Because I used to feel like I was the kid who stuck out wearing the [store brand] 'club' sizes that were down to my knees and were tight on me. And when I first put on that Nike shirt it was tight, but it really empowered me, and I knew that I could do anything."
 
Mary Ann says the disappointment and frustration can be overwhelming for overweight children looking to dress like their sports idols, or just like the other kids.
 
"The first time Micki fit into a Nike shirt was a huge deal to her," Mary Ann said. "It was a kids' XL and it was a bit tight -- but it fit. It was hard for us to find any athletic clothes that would fit Micki. If we did find something it would be an adult size and be down to her knees. Micki told me she hated the 'big' clothes and it made her stick out even more. She wanted the 'swish' like the other kids -- it made her feel like she was an athlete and belonged to be there. She now wants to start a line of athletic half-size clothing for overweight kids. Since one out of three kids are overweight or obese, half sizes would benefit or even inspire kids to try a sport. I know the effect it had on Micki."
 
Micki first took to the tennis court because of a friend who wanted to hit with her. Now she has taken a friend who wants to play tennis, Sofia, under her wing.
 
"Sofia reminds me of what I was like when I was overweight." Micki said. "She wanted to play tennis, and she reminded me what I was like when I wanted to play tennis. So she started playing, and she's started getting better and she's started getting healthier."
 
Micki can also draw on her experience to help Sofia with bullies.
 
"Working with Sofia, who been through bullying -- I definitely know what shes going through so I know how to help her, and how to deal with bullies," Micki said. "I used to get bullied on the school bus and at school in my neighborhood, so I felt like I couldn't escape. So I really want to let her know that I can lead by example for her, and that she's definitely not alone."
 
Hearing about bullying from a teacher or parent is one thing, but hearing about it from a peer who has been there is totally another.
 
"It is very powerful to see one child talking to another child -- they understand each other," Mary Ann said. "When Micki is talking to a child, they hang her every word, they are desperate for help and really relate to her. As a parent I saw firsthand the lack of a role model for Micki and how much that would have helped. Oprah referred to Micki as the face of childhood obesity -- that kids can look her Micki and see that it is possible."
 
With only a couple years of tennis under her belt, Micki has now advanced to playing USTA Florida rookie-level tournaments, reveling in competition that didn't seem possible as an overweight 9-year-old relegated to the sidelines.
 
"The USTA and the refs, everyone that we have dealt with, when they found out Micki's story, we'd kind of become 'The people that were on the Oprah Show,'" Mary Ann said. "They'd be coming over and high-fiving her, and it was really just amazing, really pumping her up. We're taking this year as a learning year for USTA tournaments and just having fun. Coach Bob Zipay at Englewood Tennis Club has been amazing with Micki and has really taught her good sportsmanship."
 
Micki says her goal is to goal is to one day make the high school tennis team and maybe get a college scholarship. Mary Ann says tennis has changed their family.
 
"We now both play tennis, and even have my husband playing," Mary Ann said. "Tennis has brought our family closer and we are having a blast."
 
Meanwhile the well-spoken 12-year-old is planning a website and writing a book about her journey losing weight, taking up tennis and being on the Oprah Show.
 
"Now that I'm older I can write better, and it's going to be great being able to share my story with kids, and publishing it so they can know that they're not alone," Micki said.
 
USTA Florida teams with First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" program to combat childhood obesity, and Micki and Mary Ann have been encouraged to apply for a "Share the Love" grant (www.ustasharethelove.com) to further their work in fighting this epidemic. For more information on the Freedom2bfit Foundation or website, find them on Facebook or contact fitgirlmicki22@gmail.com.
 
 
 
 

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