Weight loss king: “I lost a fifth-grader”

Almost 70, Gary Koden is wise enough to know there are more important reasons to get in shape than accolades, increased confidence and a better view when he looks in the mirror.

Those are all just nice perks.

For Koden, a Tacoma resident, the highlight of his journey to lose more than 100 pounds was a hug from his 9-year-old grandson.

Hayden Crowe, 9, wrapped his arms around him and noticed that, for the first time, his arms went all the way around. “Grandpa,” Hayden said excitedly, “you’re skinny.”

“It was the best compliment I’ve ever had,” Koden said.

It was a moment that resonated with Koden on several levels. First, he knew his dramatic weight loss means he’ll have much more time to spend with Hayden.

“On my last visit, my doctor told me I’ve added years to my life,” Koden said.

Second, when he looked down at Hayden it struck him that his grandson’s weight matches the amount he’s lost: 102 pounds.

“I’ve lost a fifth-grader,” Koden said.

It seems to put the whole journey into perspective for Koden and the people with whom he shares his story.

Koden’s journey started in June 2013, when he visited his doctor for his annual physical. He knew he was overweight, but the words from the doctor stung.

“He said I was obese and I needed to lose weight,” Koden said. “Man, I hate that word.”

Koden works in surface water management for Pierce County, and a co-worker recommended he visit a Taking Off Pounds Sensibly meeting at Parkland’s Parkway Presbyterian Church. He knew he had to do something, so he decided to give TOPS a try.

At the first meeting he weighed in at 313.5 pounds. He set a goal of losing 100 pounds.

Right away he felt at home in the TOPS group. The Parkland group has 55 members, and Koden felt as if they were all in his corner.

Koden said he found motivation in the inspiring emails, text messages, phone calls and postcards other members sent his way.

He’s hardly an exercise fanatic (“Nobody likes exercise,” he said), but he found ways to put in the time. He most often uses an elliptical trainer and lifts weights.

He loves rocky road ice cream, but found ways to take away the cravings with low-calorie snacks.

The pounds starting melting away. “When you’re that overweight it’s easy to lose weight at first,” he said.

His TOPS group offered an array of incentives to keep him motivated. Awards and prizes called “charms” were on the line for reaching certain benchmarks and winning short-term weight loss competitions.

One incentive Koden didn’t know about was the state weight loss division championships. “If I knew, I think I could have won,” Koden said.

When he weighed in at the end of 2013, he’d lost 55 pounds. He finished second in the 300- to 400-pound division by 0.4 ounces.

He responded by telling his chapter he would win the next year and become the state king. Each year, the titles of TOPS king and queen go to the most successful weight losers in each state.

By the end of 2014, Koden weighed 211 pounds. He’d lost 102.5 pounds. He graduated from TOPS to KOPS (Keeping Off Pounds Sensibly).

When he walked into a meeting this spring, the members of the Parkland chapter stood and started clapping and singing.

“I thought, ‘This is different?’ ” Koden said. “What’s this all about?”

The group had a special guest, a TOPS regional officer, who was there to announce that Koden had won his division (this time he was in the division for people weighing 250-300 pounds).

In May, he went to the TOPS convention in Ocean Shores where he was crowned state king. Carol Ryder of Richland lost 112 pounds to earn the queen honors.

“I couldn’t believe that I had really done it,” Koden said.

Now he’s off to the 62nd TOPS International Recognition Day in Reno. He has no idea if he has a chance of winning the weight-loss crown there. He’s heard stories of people losing more than 200 pounds.

Such things are out of his control. He’s focusing on goals he can control. He wants to earn the KOPS award for keeping 100 pounds off for more than a year.

That goal is about six months away for Koden, who’s increased his weight loss total to 105 pounds.

“It’s pretty rare,” Koden said of the century award, but he’ll confess that even that award doesn’t sound as sweet as the title of “Skinny Grandpa.”