Becoming a champion: alumna shares journey from 300 pounds to award-winning bodybuilder

<p>Rachael Heffner poses on stage during her routine for judges during the Indiana State Championship on Aug. 18, 2018. Rachael Heffner, Photo provided.&nbsp;</p>

Rachael Heffner poses on stage during her routine for judges during the Indiana State Championship on Aug. 18, 2018. Rachael Heffner, Photo provided. 

At 12 years old, Rachael Heffner exchanged her memories of shopping, cooking and carving pumpkins with her “best friend” for the comfort of chips, soda and fast food. 

She spiraled down an unhappy path searching for comfort after the death of her mother to systemic mastocytosis — a disease related to fatal organ damage. 

“[Food] was the only thing I could control at the time,” Heffner said. “I just lost my mother… I had no control over the events happening to me.” 

As a child, Heffner said kids in school would call her “hefty” or “Heffer from Rocko’s Modern Life.”

Heffner was not alone in her experience. According to the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), 63 percent of overweight high school girls are victims of bullying. These victims are susceptible to increased “feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem and social isolation.”

“When she passed away, I started emotionally eating and acting out and rebelling against my dad,” Heffner said. “I was so unhappy with not only her but also with my life, and I didn’t care about anything.” 

At 19 years old, she weighed 300 pounds, burdened with insecurities and past grief as she started her freshman year at Ball State in 2010. 

During that point in her life, Heffner had little in the way of dreams or ambitions. The way she saw it, she didn’t think she would live past 25.

In 2017, 32 percent of Delaware County adults also fell into the obese weight range according to County Health Rankings. Alongside the mental effects, obesity can physically cause osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and potentially lead to death. 

Now, Heffner is an award-winning champion bodybuilder, weighing 130 pounds with an 11 percent body fat composition. She said an ex-boyfriend is to thank for the kickstart she needed to turn her life around. 

“He broke up with me, and I wanted to make him feel bad,” said the 2014 Ball State alumna. “I wanted to look the best I could look, so I decided to lose weight. I knew it was better for my health, so I decided to do it ever since.” 

The first person Heffner turned to after her decision to get healthy was her father, who’s a powerlifter himself. Growing up, Heffner recalls him teaching her how to lift weights and stay nutritious.

“I decided enough was enough,” Heffner said. “I was tired of being unhappy, so I bought a pair of Nike shoes and told my dad I was going to start losing weight and that would be my New Year’s Resolution.”

She quickly proved her commitment after losing 20 pounds in her first two months. For Valentine’s day that year, her father’s love and support came not in the typical chocolate kisses or candy hearts, but in granola bars and socks.

Heffner spent four days a week at the gym running on a treadmill in pursuit of her goal until she lost 160 pounds. 

Stacey Grogg, the wellness nutritionist at Ball State, said people who lose weight gradually, roughly 1-2 pounds a week, “are more successful at keeping the weight off.”

“The CDC states that any amount of weight loss is likely beneficial to your overall health,” Grogg said. “But, we have to focus on healthfully losing weight and not restricting ourselves so much that we are depriving ourselves of so many wonderful and necessary nutrients.”

Last year, Heffner lost so much weight, she decided it was time to complete her transformation with an excess skin removal surgery that cost more than $18,000. 

Left: Rachael Heffner, class of 2014, poses for a photo on Feb. 12, 2017, before having surgery to remove her extra skin after losing 170 pounds. Right: Heffner poses for another photo Feb. 12, 2018, four months after surgery. Rachael Heffner, Photo provided.


To pay for her surgery, Heffner worked at Uber and a local spray tan store in addition to her job as the director of operations at ARC Fitness, where Adam Cayce, the owner, helped her reach a healthy weight to ensure a speedy recovery post-surgery.

During the operation in October 2017, surgeons removed three pounds of skin from Heffner’s stomach, approximately equal to the weight of an apple pie. 

Afterward, Heffner said the body reflected back to her in the mirror felt simultaneously comfortable and alien. 

“That was the last piece of her 300-pound life that was removed from her,” said Jodi Alexander, Heffner’s best friend. “That was the last thing that connected her to that lifestyle, and it was gone. 

“She had lived that lifestyle for so long. … That was her closing that chapter of her life.”

Cayce said he believed Heffner was in a confusing place after the surgery since she was in the transition of feeling “insecure with her [former] body to still feeling insecure with her new body.”

Although Heffner went through a drastic physical change from the first time she walked into ARC Fitness, Cayce said the biggest difference he’s noticed is her confidence. 

Just last year Heffner swore to him she wouldn’t be caught wearing a bikini onstage, but in August, she competed in the Indiana State Championship — her debut in both competitive bodybuilding and wearing bikinis. She won five first-place trophies, a state title and Best New Competitor. 

“To see her go from saying that she’ll never go onstage and feeling completely uncomfortable in her own skin to stepping onstage and not only feeling comfortable but strutting herself – it was mind-blowing and definitely a proud moment in my life,” Cayce said. 

Left: Rachael Heffner displays her diploma after graduating high school in 2010. Rachael Heffner, Photo provided. Right: Heffner holds her first bodybuilding trophies after the Indiana State Championship on Aug. 18, 2018. She said she had never felt more proud of herself than after the competition. Unmasking IMAGES, Photo provided.

Alexander also said she was really proud of Heffner. 

“Not many people who step on stage to be Miss Indiana weighed 300 pounds at one point in their life. It’s really cool to have somebody who’s been where a lot of people are at and where they think they’re stuck,” Alexander said. “You wouldn’t think that a matter of years ago, she weighed double what she is now.”

Since the Indiana State Championship, Heffner made her second appearance at the Hoosier Flex in early September, where she earned five more first place trophies to add to her collection.

In order to maintain her new body, Heffner said she eats roughly six meals a day about two to three hours apart. 

She is so strict with her schedule that Alexander recalled a time Heffner went home at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday night to eat her sixth meal.

“I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t do the meal prep. I couldn’t do any of that stuff that she does,” Alexander said. “The whole process has been awesome, and it’s been motivational for a lot of people, especially me. She motivates me more than she thinks she does.”

Now, at 27 years old, Heffner said she appreciates all the strength and hard work it has taken her to achieve a fit and healthy body – two years after she thought she’d die from her unhealthy eating habits. 

“It feels like for the first time in a long time that I’m in the body that I’m supposed to be in,” Heffner said. “I’ve never been comfortable in my body until now.”

Contact Adam Pannel with comments at arpannel@bsu.edu

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