Last night, America watched as 24-year-old Wisconsin native Ryan Sawlsville turned his life around and lost more than half of his body weight on Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. After a car accident in 2009 cost him his left arm, Ryan’s unhealthy eating and exercising habits caused him to balloon to over 400 pounds. In the span of a year (and with the help of trainer Chris Powell and a few pro football players), he dropped the pounds and the negative attitude to become what he is today: a man who is amazingly faith-filled and incredibly inspiring, regardless of the arm.
The episode was very emotional and well-done, but I was curious about Ryan’s life today and about all the progress he’s continued to make. I had the chance to talk to him about his story a few days ago. Read on for the interview….
What inspired you to lose the weight?
I realized how much of a problem my weight was after my car accident in 2009. Honestly, I’ve viewed my weight as more of a disability than missing an arm because I can still do everything I could do before. It takes a little bit longer now, but that’s it. With my weight, it was just hard to move around and maneuver things, so I realized that I needed to lose the weight in order to fully live my life.
Did you always struggle with your weight?
I was always a bigger kid. I was an athlete in high school, but my weight never got in my way or really affected how I thought about myself. Because I was involved in sports, I always had friends. But a lot of things changed after my accident. I was actually going to culinary school at the time and ended up giving up culinary arts and moving back in with my parents. I also couldn’t find a job. I realized that my weight, probably more so than my amputation, was what acted as a double-edged sword and held me back. So the first time I ever realized that it was something I had to fix and get under control was after the car accident.
Can you tell me a little more about how you bounced back after the accident?
I had just turned 21 and was getting started on doing my own thing. I think the biggest issue for me was having to rethink my life and just start over after I lost my arm. I was so set in my ways and thought I knew what path I was taking. But when I went home after the accident, I fell into a depression where I wasn’t doing anything and there was nothing going on in my life. The first part of my recovery was surgery and relearning how to do things. If I wanted to do anything, I had to be driven around or helped by other people. It was hard to adapt in the beginning. But now I’m able to live a normal life.
Do you still enjoy cooking?
Yes! A lot of people believe that if you want to lose weight, you can’t eat anything that tastes good. Fortunately, with my culinary background, I learned very quickly that food can be healthy and still taste amazing. I’m excited to really incorporate that into my lifestyle every day with friends and family.
Is there a motto you live by?
I live by a Bible verse, actually. It’s Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” There were a lot of things that I set out to accomplish on the show that a lot of people would say was impossible. But it’s not impossible and there’s nothing that you can’t do. I don’t care if you’re missing an arm or missing two arms or missing half your body – you can do anything you want to do if you work hard and don’t give up on your dream. My faith is a huge part of my life, and I feel that there was a reason I survived my accident. The doctors told me that I really shouldn’t have survived that day. They couldn’t explain why I’m still alive. It was so blatant to me that I survived for a purpose, but it took me four years to find out what that purpose is. Now that I see the platform God has given me with the show, I’m determined to make the best of it and inspire people with my story. I clearly remember waking up after the accident without the arm and praying that if I could impact one person and show him or her that you don’t have to give up in life and you can keep fighting, then I’d take it. I knew that, in a way, this would open up doors for me. I had to trust God, and it wasn’t easy. There were a lot of ups and downs, but my faith was a huge part of getting me through those downs.
What have you taken from the Extreme Weight Loss experience?
Through the show, I’ve realized just how true it is that I can do anything. There’s nothing that holds me back. There were times when I felt like I couldn’t do it, but I pushed myself. One goal that I set out to achieve last year that [the show’s host] Chris Powell motivated me to try was riding a bicycle. I’d never been able to ride a bike my entire life, even before the accident. For me to even try that proves just how much my mindset has changed. Another thing I learned from the experience is that transformation – whether it’s losing weight or something completely different – starts from the inside out. And that was the biggest part of my transformation this last year: changing how I felt about myself missing the arm and how I thought other people would see me.
What was the most memorable part of your experience on the show?
I got to meet Donald Driver and Clay Matthews! I’m a huge Green Bay Packers fan, and those two are my idols. They helped me overcome my fears and reach for my goals. It’s also really neat to see that even though they’re high-profile athletes, they’re just everyday, amazing people. That was an eye-opener for me too because I realized that I’m getting this really big platform on the show that I think will help me with my ultimate goal of helping other people. I was just fortunate and blessed to have this opportunity, and I feel like I need to take advantage of it. I think that even when people look up to you, you need to just be thankful for everything you’re given and not let it get to your head. So even after the show and the things I’ve accomplished, I’m still that young boy from Appleton, Wisconsin.
Now that your story has aired on national television, what’s one thing you hope viewers are going to take with them after seeing the episode?
Do not give up on life. No matter what happens, there’s no reason you can’t accomplish your goal. A lot of things I set out for this past year seemed pretty impossible at first to do with one arm. It takes hard work, dedication, and trusting in something that will get you through the bad times. For me, it was my strong Christian faith. And I know that’s not what everybody has, but it’s important to just find something or someone to trust in and rely on to get through those times. In life, we’re always going to have to deal with something. Mine is just more physical and obvious. There are lots of people out there who are hurting, and I just want them to know that they can get through whatever they’re going through.
How has the process of working out and losing weight affected your confidence?
One of the first things that went through my head after the accident was that I was damaged goods and that no girl was ever going to want me. When I lost the arm, I really felt that I was going to impact people but that I was never going to get married or have kids. So it held me back. After the accident, I wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. And that thinking process didn’t change until this past year. As I lost the weight, I grew more confident. Now I’m out there living life and being an active and contributing member of society. I’m at the point where, in my heart, I accept myself and who I am no matter what. If a girl doesn’t want to date me because I’m missing an arm, then that’s her decision. But I know I’m an amazing guy and I’ve changed my thoughts a lot. Now I know without a doubt that someday I will have a wife and kids, and I’m going to be an amazing father and husband. That’s something that I never imagined would ever happen to me when I started the transformation.
Are your friends and family supportive of your decision to be healthy?
Definitely. That was one thing that contributed so much to my success this year because it was a family endeavor. We went to the gym and ate as a family. And it’s cool how getting healthy brought my family closer together. It’s because it’s been a combined effort. To have my family come on board with me in this process has been an amazing blessing and I’m very thankful for that.
I want to take advantage of the opportunity I have to share my story with people. Who knows how long that’s going to go? So after that I want to create my own future and go back to school for psychology. My ultimate goal is to become a motivational speaker and help others realize that they need to keep fighting in order to thrive. Eventually down the road, I want to start a family. So pretty soon maybe I’ll start looking for a girlfriend. I’m not going to focus on that, but if the right girl comes into my life I know I’ll be ready. I won’t be shy or freaked out. We’ll see. I’m taking it day by day. Doing the show has been an unbelievable and overwhelming experience, but I know that God is working for me. He has a plan and a purpose for me, so that makes life a whole lot easier.