For soon-to-be UW-Green Bay freshman Ryan Sawlsville, losing more than half his body weight was as much mental as it was physical.
There was the loss of his arm in a car accident nearly four years ago, an event that left him wondering why he’d survived. There was the weight that piled on afterward, when he couldn’t find a job, couldn’t sleep at night and couldn’t seem to find any hope. There was the weight-loss journey that started with applying to be on ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition,” and that was threatened in December when his uncle suddenly died at just 43 years old.
But Sawlsville, 24, persisted, dropping 217 pounds during his one-year journey with the show. Now he plans to take that same determination back to the classroom, starting classes at UW-Green Bay this fall. By majoring in Psychology, Sawlsville — whose “Extreme Makeover” episode aired Tuesday (June 25) — hopes to help others overcome their own obstacles, and transform, as he did, for the better.
“I never dreamed I would ever want to go back to school,” said Sawlsville, of Appleton. “I know there’s going to be some opportunities (related to “Extreme Makeover”), but I don’t want to rely on the show to create opportunities. I know that one of the things that is going to be crucial is to have a degree.”
Sawlsville chose UW-Green Bay in part because of its proximity to home and family (the beautiful campus didn’t hurt, he adds), and also because of a connection he made with Assistant Phoenix Softball Coach Scott Beyer. The pair met last winter at Players Choice in Appleton, a sports arena where Beyer is director of operations. Sawlsville came in wanting to learn to ride a bike — something he’d never done with two arms, let alone one — and he and Beyer teamed up.
“I got to be pretty involved, and Ryan and I became friends,” Beyer said. “He would open up to me a little bit more, and I said ‘do you want to come up and tell your story to the softball team?’ ”
Sawlsville nervously agreed, and this spring he spoke to the Phoenix softball players about overcoming challenges — the first time he’d ever spoken in front of a group. He’s now exploring motivational speaking as a possible career, and knows a psychology degree would be helpful in that — or another — endeavor.
Beyer and Sawlsville worked together three to four days a week, starting with training wheels and progressing to the point where Sawlsville could ride on his own — something he once thought impossible. That became even more important with his uncle’s unexpected death, as Sawlsville set a goal to ride 43 miles — one for each year his uncle had lived.
Recently retired Green Bay Packer and perennial fan favorite Donald Driver joined Sawlsville for the ride, and the pair have since discussed doing charity work together, Sawlsville said. Driver also was part of Sawlsville’s reveal, presenting him with a new Packers jersey — this one in a size befitting his new physique.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews also was part of the show, training with Sawlsville at Don Beebe’s House of Speed in Green Bay.
“It’s been fun but it’s also been overwhelming,” Sawlsville said of the experience and the recent glut of media attention. “I like to be humble, and for me (this has) absolutely been a humbling experience.”
It was also, at times, a difficult experience, Sawlsville said. He had to learn to surrender control and trust trainer Chris Powell, and to make the key lifestyle changes he’s working hard to maintain. Sawlsville credits strong family ties and a steadfast faith in God with helping him make positive changes and deal with the hubbub surrounding the show.
Sawlsville’s big reveal was taped at Lambeau Field last month. He started out weighing 410 pounds, and set a goal to shed 215 pounds, bringing him to 195. His determination and grit paid off, and at show’s end the scale read 193. Moving forward, Sawlsville knows finding balance in life will be critical — and he’s excited to start school, and start his next chapter.
“I really know I shouldn’t be alive,” Sawlsville said, referring to the car accident that took his arm and nearly his life. “I’ve been blessed.”