As a child growing up poor in Liberia, Tauwah Wontaa learned to take nothing for granted. He recalls walking seven miles to and from school each day and regularly carrying water and cords of fi rewood for his family. But the relative peace of that existence was shattered by civil war. In 1990, at the age of 17, Wontaa escaped to the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the culture change was shocking—and fattening. Having been raised on a single daily meal of rice and soup, Wontaa was immediately overwhelmed by the availability of fast food in the States, and he indulged to excess at almost every chain in existence. Eating six burgers in one sitting became routine. "When I wasn't working, I ended up just sitting around and watching TV," he says. "I got caught up in the American lifestyle."
By 2003, the 5'7' Wontaa weighed close to 245 pounds—about double what he had been in Liberia. The effects were debilitating. "I was getting excruciating headaches," he says, "and when I went to a doctor, he told me I had hypertension and early-stage diabetes." The doctor gave Wontaa a choice— either lose weight or go on medication.
First, Wontaa spent two weeks on a self-imposed detox diet, eating onlyfruits and vegetables. He then reintroduced lean meats and grains to his diet. Oatmeal replaced multiple Egg McMuffi ns at breakfast, and turkey sandwiches on wheat bread supplanted the dozen donuts he typically downed for lunch. Dinner was beans, rice, and lean ground turkey instead of the family-size bucket of KFC chicken (with extra biscuits) he once craved.
Before long, the headaches were gone. Even better, Wontaa found that he had the energy to begin working out. He started waking up at 4 a.m. to go running before work, and he bought a bench so he could lift weights in the evenings. Within four months, he'd shed 50 pounds. By August 2004, Wontaa weighed in at 170 pounds, and his body fat was down to an incredible 7%.
Though he'd achieved tremendous conditioning, Wontaa soon felt he was becoming skinny, so he shifted his goal to increasing muscle mass. Before long, he was training every other day with an upper-/lower-body split. In time, his friends began to notice his physique changing, and they suggested he compete in a bodybuilding show. Wontaa accepted the challenge, and in June 2007 he placed second in the lightweight division of the Natural Classic, a regional bodybuilding competition.
Now 34, Wontaa is more committed than ever to fitness: He gave up his hotel career and is now a certifi ed personal trainer. He's also studying to get a degree in exercise physiology. Looking in the mirror these days makes his past in Liberia seem unfamiliar. "The only life I knew was hardship," he says. "I never imagined the good life waiting for me here!" Waiting, yes—just around the corner from the fast-food joints.