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Friday, Sep 19, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns
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In a world where Tonya takes command, anything is possible

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— Although there is nothing especially novel about politicians who overcome meager beginnings and hardship to achieve positions of influence, the tale of the mayor of Family Fitness Center ripples with enough wrinkles, switchbacks, unexpected victories and revelations of the human spirit it might have been written by Thomas Hardy.

You know, the 19th Century British novelist. Author of “The Mayor of Casterbridge.” No? What are they teaching in school anymore?

OK, then this: It’s sort of a Judd-Apatow-channels-Rob-Reiner-via-Vlad-Yudin tale of one nearly lost soul overcoming 20s-something angst manifest by a hideously common modern malady to emerge, ultimately, not merely in shining triumph, but fully in command of her destiny.

How’s that? Just tell the story already? Fine.

Just now, Tonya Griffin, the most popular figure at the gym at State Road 52 and Little Road — “I’m the mayor here; I know everybody” — isn’t merely the image of sculpted wellness. She has the first-place trophy from the National Physique Committee Florida State Championships, held Aug. 16 in Orlando, to prove it. Saturday in Pittsburgh, she’ll see how Florida’s best stacks up against qualifiers from around the continent when the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness holds its two-day North America pose-off.

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How does she sum it up? “I’m on Cloud 9. It’s like a dream.” Even she is amazed at how far she’s come from the frightened, desperate walking skeleton who, one fateful morning in the Tampa radiology lab where she worked, raised sunken eyes from the baggy containing a single slice of deli turkey and a plum — an imitation of lunch — to a colleague at the next desk and managed the whisper that changed everything.

“Help me,” she rasped, collapsing into heaving sobs of surrender.

A post-high-school slave to anorexia who’d shrugged off inexpert family interventions — “They’d say I looked terrible, I needed to eat; how was that supposed to help?” — Griffin constantly vowed to cure herself. She’d start eating when she hit 90 pounds; OK, 85 pounds; well, for sure 80 pounds. Now she was 22, weighed 75 pounds, her skin ached and her hair, more like straw, escaped in clumps. Clothes off the children’s rack hung as though draped on a scarecrow.

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Ten years later, confident as the sunrise, 123 pounds of taut, effervescent kinetic energy, Griffin can’t say what dragged her to that last wretched moment. Maybe it was her parents splitting up. Maybe it was moving from East Lake to Hudson. “I know, not that far, right? But Hudson is like another world.” Maybe it was friends heading off in so many unimaginable directions, leaving her with a mounting sense of abandonment.

Maybe it was just all of it, the whole isolating glob of regret that told her life was beyond her control, so she would control the one thing over which she had utter authority: what she would allow past her lips. Because, said the gremlin that had seized her psychological center, the explanation behind her every disappointment was fat.

Intellectually, she knew that wasn’t so. She’d grown up in fast-pitch softball, good enough for travel teams that toured the Southeast, good enough to make second team All-Pinellas County for East Lake High. “Catcher and second base,” Griffin says. “I was a quick little bugger.” She was still diamond-fit when the unraveling began.

Counseling plus the supervision of a determined nutritionist began the turnaround, but knowing she needed to occupy her belatedly identified obsessive-compulsive gene, she got busy elsewhere. First with daily three-hour workouts at the gym, then with nursing school and, after graduation, 2:30 p.m.-to-midnight shifts at a rehabilitation center.

At both places, this fitness buff, this honorable honorary mayor in a constant state of recovery — “I’ve learned about food,” she says, including that she can give away what she bakes, although there’s a post-competition banana bread loaf waiting in her freezer — finds joy in helping unhealthy people get better. Says Cookie Weyand, one of the gym’s fitness directors, “Tonya is so fabulous, inside and out. She inspires people.”

Stories of triumph do that for us. The best thing about Tonya Griffin’s is, it’s nowhere near finished.

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