FORT WAYNE – Salem Albayyari finds an unattended treadmill inside the bustling Parkview YMCA, inserts his ear buds, cranks up Kanye West and begins a run that will end after 2 1/2 programmed miles. With a sweat broken, he moves across the room to the elliptical machines, and from there to the bench press.
Put everything together, including a session with a pair of heavy ropes, and it’s an intense but typical afternoon workout for the 17-year-old Northrop High School senior whose journey to this moment has been far from typical.
Wearing his black shirt and long blue shorts, and Kim Kardashian’s latest conquest rapping in his ears, the kid certainly looks normal; a jogging picture of health; a young man and his music.
But you should’ve seen the picture two years ago, to this very day.
“It was on Jan. 14, 2012, when I clocked in at that,” Albayyari says.
“That” refers to a previous weight of 274 pounds – 94 more than the 180 he’s at now.
The 274 was not just his highest weight; it was also his lowest emotional point.
So on that January day precisely, Albayyari, the personable, chubby kid who was the victim of too many fat jokes in middle school, then at Northrop, took the first step on quite possibly one of those many treadmills inside the Parkview Y.
Early into his teens, wearing a yellow T-shirt a size or two too small, Albayyari takes a selfie picture into a mirror that reflects the bright flash.
His face, round and full, shows a jokester with his tongue hanging out.
Turns out he was lying into the mirror, even then.
“I felt like a slob,” he says. “I always made up excuses. I was never happy. I always seemed happy, but I really wasn’t. I’d always put on fake smile ’cause I knew.
“I was wearing size XXL. I would wear Hollister stuff. Everybody in eighth grade used to wear that, and I always wanted to wear it, so I’d buy the biggest shirt size, and I’d stretch it out to where it would fit, but it really didn’t fit. But I’d wear it. Looking back, it was awful. It was the worst thing I could wear. It just made my stomach bulge out. I always wanted to fit in with the skinny people; the fit people, y’know.”
He had had enough. Simple as that, Albayyari says. He said he got out of the shower, looked at his stomach and “teared up.”
Albayyari had felt these pangs of guilt before. Many times he promised himself he would lose weight. Swore it. Vowed it. At least two times, maybe three, he promised his parents, who kept buying him a YMCA membership, only to have it go unused.
“I was making money for the Y, and he was not going,” his mother, Nivine, says. “He said, ‘I promise you! I promise you!’ So I got him a membership again.”
This time he kept his promise.
And on Jan. 14, 2012, Albayyari stepped onto a treadmill and ran two-tenths of a mile before he had to rest. He ran some more, and rested again.
“I had to walk and do intervals to get past a mile,” says Albayyari, who guessed that it took him 14 or 15 minutes to finish that first mile. “It felt awesome. I was ecstatic. Within myself, I was super happy, knowing that I finished it.”
He came back the next day, and the day after, and weeks and months later.
He gave up McDonald’s (two Big Macs, a large fry and a soda was his favorite order). He handed his mother a list of foods he wanted her to prepare: fish, chicken breasts, rice, veggies.
By June, he had lost 48 pounds in addition to his love of Coke and Pepsi and Mountain Dew.
“I was honestly scared, because it was summertime, and I was like, ‘I can’t gain any weight,’ ” Albayyari says. “In the summer, everybody is sleeping in late, but I was like, ‘I’ve got to keep going.’ ”
His daily workout became mandatory, bordering on obsessive. His sweat fests intensified, including running on the YMCA’s outdoor track. The weight continued to fall.
It was a year ago when Albayyari weighed in at 169 pounds. He had dropped 105 pounds. He lost 10 inches in his waist, going from 40 to 30.
“I was too skinny,” he says. “So I’ve tried to build back up, putting on muscle.”
But this isn’t about weight anymore, either losing it or gaining it. It’s about Albayyari finding comfort in his own skin.
“I look at myself in the mirror and I can see – I know this sounds weird – the ghost of the old me when I wake up,” he says.
Because “the fat kid” is still inside him, he remains humble about his new physique. He’s proud, but not boastful.
He says he talked to his health class about the weight loss, and that was about it as far as making a public spectacle. But he would like to do more to help others get to where he is.
“My objective is to show people it’s possible,” Albayyari says. “I’m not helping anybody right now, but people have come up to me and asked for advice, and I’d take time and help them. Half of them wouldn’t succeed with it, but they still tried it.
“I want to start an organization, but I can’t do it on my own. I don’t know how to start.”
There was one guy in school – Albayyari did say who – who came up and asked for his advice. “He said, ‘I just need some help, man. Can you help me?’ ”
It was one of the students who teased Albayyari when he was heavier.
Albayyari gave the kid his phone number.
“If I hear somebody say something about somebody being overweight, I’ll call them out on it. I don’t care who you are,” Albayyari says. “The word ‘fat’ is awful. I hate that word. I still don’t say it.”
There are times, he says, when he’ll see someone who is heavy that he doesn’t know, and he’d like to encourage them.
“Honestly, I feel real bad,” Albayyari says. “I know they’re not happy and they want to change, but they don’t know if they can. There are kids here that I see that may want to lose weight, and I never know if I should go up to them and ask if they need help. Some don’t like that. I feel bad for them. I know how they feel. I know their position.”