Shirel. I'm so blessed to have met Shirel. We met riding at Flywheel. To be honest, I was a little intimidated because I knew parts of her story and I was like, "damn, this chick is a badass." I introduced myself and I've been obsessed with her since. Shirel truly has this contagious, positive energy about her that (from my experience) doesn't waver even when things are hard. I wanted to record her story... so that's what we did. We met at Starbucks (and I actually got tea, shocker) and recorded her story. I wanted to do her story this way because I felt you'd be able to feel her personality and candidness better this way. This girl is relentless.
Shirel laughing it up in our BLACK+GOLD Crew
I have often taken the road less traveled, the path that felt a little harder than I thought it should. But when I made the conscious decision to change my life, I realized that hard didn’t mean impossible.
I was vice president of my school government in college, I was in with all the frats and Greek life, and the athletes… everyone kinda loved me. I just really love people. My mom told me when I was little that I would keep her up at night because I wanted to play, she told me I didn’t even cry. I just sat there and wanted someone to talk to as a baby. I’ve always had it and wanted it—that human interaction. There’s something special to be said about human connection but I never put myself first. I always put other people first, across the board and it got to the point where I was 24, 350 pounds and there’s this deep unhappiness that you can’t get rid of and no amount of socializing, friendship or companionship that will get you passed that.
One day, I was at my friend’s birthday party. We were all drinking, eating and we went to smoke a cigarette outside. I just started to feel different—I had chest pains. I was just with all my friends and I was like, I’m too young to feel like this. I remember the following week I went to go see the doctor and then they sent me to a specialist, a bariatric surgeon. They recommended a gastro sleeve; they said to me that was the only way I would live until 30.
They told me that 99% of people who will lose weight and put it back on, that there’d be no way I’d be that 1% and I thought about that for a really long time. Leading up to the surgery, it was supposed to be in January, I had to lose a little bit of weight because I was too overweight—which is crazy. Like, it’s crazy for someone to say that to you. This is supposed to be something that’s going to save your life, you know, but it was too dangerous to do it because I was too overweight. There were all these possible complications so they told me I had to lose like 30 pounds first. I thought to myself, that’s so doable, I can do it.
I literally googled this thing Oprah did. She was talking about a balanced diet, some Weight Watcher shit that she does so I took that model and applied it to what I was doing. I didn’t follow any rule books, I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t go to a dietician… I did it on my own and made it something that worked for me. That was cutting out processed sugars. I cut out coffee at first—there’s like this nexus between coffee and cigarettes—so I had to cut out the coffee. I quit smoking cold turkey which was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I stopped drinking alcohol. And I just started using a fitness tracker, I made sure I was walking 10,000 steps a day; if it meant taking a 15-20 minute lunch just to take a little walk I would do that. At first it was really hard. Weighing 350 pounds, walking up a flight of stairs was challenging, taking a walk around the block was challenging.
First I would try to do a ½ mile then a mile during lunch then 2 miles. I remember at some point during a 45 minute lunch period, I was banging out like 4 miles and it was awesome. I went to the gym, I got on the elliptical. It was day by day, I did not quit. It was really fucking hard.
I was supposed to have the surgery but the Friday before, my uncle passed away. My dad had to fly to Israel, my mom was devastated, I was devastated and we had to put the surgery on hold. So I was like, I’ll do it in March. When things don’t go as planned, it’s like everything is just crashing down around you. I felt like, “this is all for nothing, this sucks. I can’t believe I have to wait until March.” At this point, I had lost 35 pounds-ish and I remember that whole weekend—I ordered a whole fucking pizza, I cried, I didn’t leave my bed, I was just absolutely miserable. I woke up the following Monday like, fuck this, I’m doing this. I WILL be that 1%, there’s no doubt. Everything I’ve done, I’ve worked for. I worked to be the first person in my family to go to college, I worked 40 hours a week while in college to pay for my boarding and to pay for my living.
At first, I ate more like a paleo diet and eventually reintroduced whole wheat bread, reintroduced brown rice. I allowed myself the flexibility of a cheat day but I stayed away from processed sugar.
I plateaued at 70 pounds so I really needed a change; this was at the end of March 2015. I got ClassPass because everyone was getting ClassPass. I signed up for this Flywheel class; it was a Friday, 6:30 on April 3rd. When I walked into that class, it absolutely changed my life. It’s a really powerful position to be a fitness instructor because you have the ability to make or break someone’s life. Inside the walls of the stadium, there’s that magic you bring and when people walk out, they talk about it.
So, I remember walking into that class April 3rd, 2015 and Kara introduced herself. I wanted to cancel out, I was terrified, that class was my first introduction to group fitness. I got on the bike. There are very few people, I can count them on my hand, who can make me work hard the way she made me work that day. I hate when people say like, “get uncomfortable.” It’s not about getting uncomfortable. It’s about actually believing in yourself. There’s something to be said for pushing passed what you think is your max or just trying to work a little bit harder, not many people jump at that opportunity. Some people are really happy with complacency. They’ll just get their usual numbers, their usual workout—it’s comfortable, they know what they’re getting out of it and there’s no risk.
I remember leaving class and being like, oh shit! I cannot believe I did this class, and it was fun, and I didn’t stop. I went up to the instructor after and told her I’ve lost over 75lbs. She was blown away and told me to come back, that she was right here with me and we’d do it together.
I think that was the first time I ever let anybody be a part of my journey. So by June 2016, I had lost about 160lbs. Then I signed up for my first triathlon.
I think there’s a piece of it, being too focused on the weight, where it became like a game to me. Every week, it was down, down, down but over time, I created an unhealthy relationship with the scale. The cool part about it was going back to the doctor 100lbs lighter and seeing his total shock.
You should always appreciate what your body can do because not a lot of people can do this stuff; not a lot of people can work out, run, walk, or live a good, healthy life. We live in a privileged environment and taking advantage of it was the most empowering thing. It’s really special to go through that journey and when I hit that 160lb mark, it was fucking awesome.
Then I kinda plateaued and I signed up for the triathlon. When you train for a triathlon, it’s a totally different beast. I was waking up in the morning, swimming, and then taking Flywheel in the evening. I was running on the weekends. I was doing these workouts that were swim, bike, run—and I was at the same weight. You don’t lose weight while training because your caloric intake is so high that you just stay the same. I became very obsessive with the balance between working out and food. And when I would eat, I would want to work out to make up for what I ate. I didn’t have a good relationship with food or fitness. I was overtraining and my body was really tired.
I ran my triathlon and I felt okay… I was proud of myself because I finished it, which is great. I finished in an okay time, which is great. All my friends flew down to Florida from Boston and New York. It was awesome to feel that much love and support; it’s so cool to have this foundation of people to fall back on. To have someone believe in you is this step for you to believe in yourself.
I still remember crossing that finish line. I was partway through the run, maybe 3 miles away from the finish line, it was 90 degrees in Miami, and I hit this wall. I was exhausted. I had forgotten my energy bars—so I guess the trick is, you swim and then you take your bars on the bike, you eat and drink and rehydrate then—but I forgot my bars. I got off the bike, it was so hot, all I wanted to do was drink, I was chugging Gatorade, I had no refuel. You’re swimming a mile, you’re biking 22 miles, and you’re about to do a 10k and its 90 degrees out. I hit that wall and could not run, I was just walking. This woman appeared out of nowhere; she kinda grabbed me and was like, “let’s do this.” We started running together; we were talking a little bit. There was an Olympic distance triathlon which I was running and there was a half Iron Man that she was running—and she was like, “I just need to maintain a 9 minute mile so I’m going to hold you at the 9 minute mile and we are going to run. ½ a mile before the finish line, I’m going to let you go and I’m going to go ahead of you.” We got to that ½ mile mark and she said “you got this, girl” and just ran off into the sunset. So, I just pushed. I was pushing for me, I was pushing for her, I was pushing for everyone waiting for me at the finish line.
Later on in May, I signed up for the Brooklyn Half Marathon but I didn’t train well. My nutrition wasn’t great and I kind of let everything slide a little bit. It was a really hard race for me. I just kept going through the motions… overtraining, never bringing myself back to what the core was: to create that healthy relationship, to create that balance.
In August 2017, I was working out. It was a very simple movement; I was stepping down from a box—no jumping, no plyo, nothing—just lateral step ups. My foot came down and my ACL snapped. I hit the floor; I couldn’t really bare any weight on it. I went to the hospital that night and they said it didn’t look like an ACL tear. About a week later, I went to see an orthopedic surgeon and he said it’s probably not the ACL so they sent me to get an MRI. They called me the day after and said it was my ACL. He sent me an email saying that I completely tore my ACL, that I would absolutely need surgery and we needed to schedule it. That’s when I went full-out, “life’s over, it’s done.” It was the ultimate set back.
My friend connected me with this awesome surgeon; he was the head doctor for the Brooklyn Nets. There was a lot of wait time because I was shopping around, I didn’t want to go to just anybody. At this point, I fell off of nutrition. I was eating whatever I wanted—pasta was part of my staple diet. One day, my barre instructor told me to come take Arms & Abs, at least I’d be able to do something. Two weeks before my surgery, I started taking that class and that really helped me. There’s an emotional piece to it; I was really, really depressed before the surgery. I was able to work really hard and pre-hab my knee, and do something to at least make myself feel good.
They set me up for surgery and I had the surgery September 27th. You go under, everyone is really nice to you and you wake up on pain meds so you don’t feel anything. I was fine, I got home, my parents took care of me, they got me into bed. The next day, I went to bed and woke up in the middle of the night and it felt like someone was trying to chainsaw my knee off. They warned me about this—the nerve block wares off and all of a sudden you get hit with the incision pain, you feel it in the back of your leg because they pull from your hamstring, you feel the screw. It’s a real pain.
Weeks 1-3 are such a blur because I was so depressed. The first few days, I got a lot of love but then it dies down. People go back to their normal lives. I had some complications 2 weeks after—it was such a blur but I remember what I felt. It was the loneliest I’ve ever felt.
I started setting small goals. At first, I just wanted to be off of crutches and with only a cane. I worked really hard a physical therapy and I did my exercises at home every single day. I wanted to get back so badly and I wanted to do it myself. I went back to my initial reason—why did I start this whole thing to begin with? No one is going to do this shit for you; you have to do it for yourself. I pushed through the frustration, the pain. I wasn’t going to jump in and be the same as I was before. Take it day by day. Enjoy the process. From when I tore my ACL to now, I’ve gained like 40lbs and it was frustrating because it felt like a huge setback. I look at it now and realize it’s part of the process. It’s a learning piece. I didn’t have a healthy relationship with food, I didn’t have a healthy relationship with fitness… what do I do to fix it?
The reason I tore my ACL wasn’t because of the movement or the class or a bad instructor. It was because I didn’t set myself up for success. I over trained and my body couldn’t take a simple movement. I’m out there working right now, learning from it, growing from it. I’m hoping to run the Brooklyn Half in May—and if I don’t, that’s ok.
This process and my life in general, has taught me to practice gratitude like it’s my religion and to appreciate the people who have made my success their mission. A large part of it will always be you; you are the only person who can make the conscious decision to put in the work. No one will ever do that for you. But at the same time, I am eternally grateful for the people who have helped me turn countless setbacks into comebacks and reminded me to appreciate the power that drives your mind and body. I still have a long way to go, but I will always celebrate every accomplishment and milestone because after all is said and done, the hard work will, without a doubt, lead to something greater.
It’s about creating good goals, creating a good support system, and just working hard when no one’s watching. Grind for yourself. Do it for yourself. Do it for that feeling when you cross the finish line.
At the end of our photoshoot, Shirel asked to take a photo with me... which doesn't seem like much of a big deal but I think it just speaks to how wonderful, caring and loving she is