Local woman gets fit after years of putting health ‘on the back burner’
The way Connie Maldonado gyrates in exercise class—combining what she calls her Puerto Rican rhythm with intense fitness moves—it’s hard to believe she had trouble walking two years ago.
But as a friend described it, Maldonado was so busy taking care of others, she “lost herself” in the process.
She’d been an athlete in high school and then stayed lean in the Marine Corps. But by her mid-50s, the Stafford County resident had packed 282 pounds onto her 5-foot frame.
She suffered from depression and anxiety and was apt to fall asleep in the worst places, like behind the wheel. Maldonado said she didn’t go out much, except to work, because she didn’t want others to see her—and because it hurt to walk any distance.
But after shedding 126 pounds through a combination of surgery, diet and exercise, Maldonado got her groove back. She’s a changed woman in many ways.
“Now you can’t keep me home,” she said, grinning.
Her journey to weight loss began with gastric surgery, then took off when she walked into her first Zumba class. Others told her she was such a natural with the movements—and had such an ear for Latin music—that she earned her certification as an instructor.
At a recent class, when she moved like a salsa dancer, then pounded her fists into the air, other women in the studio trilled, whooped and called out her name.
“Before, I would never think about being in front of people and shaking my stuff,” she said. “Everybody says I’m always smiling now. I’m just happy.”
For good reason. At 58, Maldonado is a size 10 for the first time since high school. She wore a 22/24 when she started her “journey” more than 18 months ago.
‘ON THE BACK BURNER’
It wasn’t any one thing that caused Maldonado’s weight gain; it was more an accumulation of life circumstances.
Maldonado spent six years in the Marine Corps after high-school graduation in New Jersey. She was a trim 119 pounds when she signed up to be a combat photographer, and left the service as a staff sergeant.
She put on some weight after her divorce, then really started to gain weight when she was a single mother, taking care of her daughter, now 33.
Then, about 15 years ago, she brought her mother here from Puerto Rico because of deteriorating health. Her mom had Parkinson’s and severe osteoporosis, and Maldonado and her siblings shared her care.
Maldonado scheduled all her appointments and oversaw her Social Security. When she finished her full-time job as a computer network administrator, she rushed home to relieve the health-care worker staying with her mom.
Things came to a head in early 2010, when her mother’s continued falls caused numerous broken bones. Maldonado had to put her into a nursing home. That was when she decided it was time to face her own weight and health issues, which had been nagging her for a while.
“I kinda put myself on the back burner,” Maldonado said. “Then I decided it was my turn—and I haven’t looked back since.”
NOT THE SAME CONNIE
In October 2010, Maldonado had gastric sleeve surgery, which reduces the size of the stomach, but doesn’t go around it altogether the way gastric bypass does. She considered the surgery a tool that would help her lose weight, but certainly not the only one needed.
After she healed, she signed up at Sport & Health Club off Garrisonville Road and started taking classes in March 2011. Anita Sanchez, a fellow Stafford resident who was in the Marines with Maldonado, is also a Zumba fanatic. One day, she looked over at her old friend in class and said, “You know, you have your smile back.”
Sanchez was glad to see it. She’s a former social services worker, and she recognized the toll the additional weight had taken on her friend’s self-esteem.
“She had lost herself,” Sanchez said. “She wasn’t the same Connie.”
Now, she sees the smile and that “devilish look in her eyes” and knows that her friend is on track again.
Sport & Health officials have watched Maldonado’s progress and posted a flier about her transformation. In it, Maldonado described herself as short, obese and miserable, and her “before” picture verifies that. The “after” one shows the smiling Maldonado people around the gym have come to know.
“She’s one of the kindest, warmest, nicest instructors we’ve ever had,” said Dina Vales, the group exercise director at the North Stafford facility. “I’m so glad we’ve been able to take that journey with her.”
‘THIS IS THE WAY WE DO IT’
During a recent class led by Maldonado, most of the students were younger than the teacher, although there’s at least one 80-year-old who takes Zumba, Vales said.
Fellow instructor Linda Applewhite, 52, said she and Maldonado get a kick out of making the younger ones sweat.
“So what if you’re only 22, we’re gonna rock you out,” Applewhite said.
As Spanish songs blasted in the background, Maldonado did what look like a salsa dance on speed. While some of the students moved a few limbs, Maldonado shook everything—her hips and feet, shoulders and head, arms and butt.
“This is the way we do it, Stafford,” she called. A woman in the back answered: “Get it, Connie!”
Maldonado isn’t just a Zumba girl. She takes or teaches classes six days out of seven and likes lifting weights as well as Jungshin fitness, a workout that incorporates a wooden sword. She loves the gym atmosphere and encouragement from others.
“What better way to stay accountable?” Maldonado asked. “If I come and teach, I’m getting my workout and I’m getting paid.”
Maldonado is still a support system to those in her life. That includes fellow students and instructors at the gym. She’s been thrilled to form friendships with women much younger.
Fellow instructor Stephanie Chung said Maldonado has become a part of her family as well as a friend from Sport & Health. She celebrates the birthdays of Chung’s three children and supports her during gym events.
“When I see her, I don’t think she’s old enough to be my mom,” Chung said. “I see her as an awesome person.”
Maldonado visits her mother in the nursing home regularly, and she enjoys time with her daughter and two grandsons, who live with her.
She often goes to the movies with grandson Titan, who’s 11. He was awed to read the flier about her weight loss and progress and said: “Grandma, you lost two of me!”
As much as Maldonado savors doing for others, she makes sure she gets in her time at the gym. When asked if she does all the cooking for the family or if she’s the primary caregiver, she quickly answered, “No.”
“Been there. Done that. Bought the T–shirt,” she said, smiling.
SIDEBAR: SHEDDING WEIGHT
Connie Maldonado’s weight is now at 156 pounds, and her nutritionist would like her to reach 130 pounds. She’s been a size 10 for a while and knows her weight hasn’t changed much, probably because she’s gaining muscle.
The gastric sleeve surgery helped limit her portions at meals. Because her stomach is so much smaller, she knows to stop eating at the first sign of fullness.
But she also watches what she eats, compared with before when she’d down four slices of pizza at once. Her George Foreman grill is her best friend in the kitchen, and she eats a lot of chicken, fruits and vegetables. She avoids beef.
She also avoids “white stuff”—bread, rice or sugar—because of the lack of nutritional value. And she doesn’t even tempt herself with goodies that co-workers bring into the office.
“Just don’t do it,” she said about sweets. “If you don’t have it, you get used to not having it and you don’t crave it.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425