Fit Nation 'challenge' lives up to name

Morris' CNN trip brings obstacles, joys
By Stina Sieg | Feb 15, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Canton resident Rick Morris, far left, is one of the "Lucky 7" training for the upcoming Nautica Malibu Triathlon with the help of CNN and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Above, Morris poses atop Stone Mountain with team members (left to right), Carlos Solis, Gupta, Denise Castelli, Nancy Klinger, Adrienne LaGier and Glenn Keller. Team member Jeff Dauler is not pictured.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a story on Canton resident Rick Morris’ recent visit to CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta with the rest of the “Lucky 7,” a group of everyday people chosen to train with the network’s help for the Nautica Malibu triathlon in September. The Mountaineer is chronicling Morris’ transformation during the 2012 CNN Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge.

ATLANTA — When it comes to any change that matters, nothing speaks louder than action. Rick Morris and the rest of the “Lucky 7” know that now perhaps better than most. For this diverse group, handpicked by CNN, their first day at the station’s headquarters had been all talk, be it very important talk, about their hopes and histories and visions for healthier futures. In an emotional meeting with their trainers and producers, there had been smiles and tears and honest admissions of doubts and dreams.

Though he says he hates the spotlight, Morris had captivated everyone with stories of his family’s cancer history and his desire to break the cycle. He had been equally affected by everyone else’s tales of regret and hopes for metamorphosis. From Nancy Klinger’s talk of finding a new life after the end of a long marriage to Denise Castelli’s desire to be an athlete following the amputation of her leg, Morris had found common ground and a few new friends.

“All the stories are different,” he said, “but I think we all have a similar goal and a similar desire in mind.”

Now it was time to get down to work.

Day two started off with lectures and then swim lessons. By the time the group was ready to begin running in downtown Atlanta, it was still only mid-morning. If Morris had been home in Canton that day, he would have hardly gotten up by now but still would have had a few cigarettes under his belt. Instead, he was wide-awake and tobacco-free. Though he hadn’t officially quit yet, he had forgone his morning smoke break and replaced it with something far more exciting.

“This is actually about the same high, to tell you the truth,” he said, comparing the buzz of exercise to that of nicotine.

And the day was just revving up. As the group walked to nearby Centennial Olympic Park, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, joined them. Low-key with a huge, bright smile, he blended almost seamlessly with the troupe. There was no star-struck fanfare. Morris and others just seemed happy to meet another member of their team. After all, the goal here is that they all cross that finish line in September — Gupta included.

At the park, trainers April Burke and Laura Cozik led the group in a few laps around sidewalks and green spaces. To Morris’ surprise, he ended running alongside Gupta, and the pair chatted casually.

“He was talking with me like one of the guys,” Morris said, still breathing heavily from the run.

Formerly in the Army, Morris has rubbed shoulders with presidents and world leaders before, but this was more intimate than any of those experiences. He said they made “small talk” about the journey ahead, about quitting smoking and the many reasons why Morris is doing all this to begin with.

Gupta is “a very down-to-earth man,” Morris said. “He gets the respect he deserves, but he doesn’t ask for it.”

He is, as Morris put it, “real.”

Moving mountains

Soon after that last lap, Gupta took off for one of his many obligations, and Morris and his team went back to CNN for some schooling and a little celebrity treatment. They were introduced to many CNN producers, who hailed them as “quasi celebrities” and gushed about how inspiring the group had already become. After lunch (a healthy one, of course), the “Lucky 7” set their sights on their next big challenge with Gupta: Stone Mountain.
Unlike so many visitors, they weren’t about to take a tram to the top of the huge, imposing dome. Instead, they hiked up that moon-like rock as if they hadn’t spent all morning hitting the pool and the pavement. They fanned out, and while they were definitely still in it together, it was obvious each member was having his or her own deeply personal experience.

Some hoofed it up the steep trail quickly, while others took their time. Though the hike was hard, everyone looked excited, even Glenn Keller, a smiley Texas trucker and the slowest in the bunch. As he made the long haul, a nearby stranger started quoting Bible verses to him, and he quoted them right back.

In the middle of the pack, Morris, who was shiny with sweat but still smiling, had to be his own cheerleader. He had a knack for it.

“I’m starting to get a taste for this,” he said, as he neared the summit.

Looking down on sprawling Atlanta, he added that he could feel his body revitalizing. At the time, there was a secret cigarette in his pocket, and it was meant to be his last. But something about being on that mountain was telling him he didn’t need it anymore. Soon, he’d surprise everyone by destroying that final smoke on camera, but for now he was just enjoying the moment. He looked amazed by the view — and by the journey he is on.

“I’m 44,” he said. “I’m going from smoking to not smoking, from the couch to the triathlon.”
When asked if he had any advice for people trying to change, he offered three familiar, no-nonsense words.

“Just do it,” he said.

He is, and couldn’t look more delighted by it.

Visit and for participant blogs, photos, videos, workout routines and schedules for when Fit Nation participants will be featured on “Sanjay Gupta, MD,” at 7:30 a.m. Saturdays on CNN. Also be sure to pick up an edition of The Guide the week of Feb. 22-28 for an exclusive interview with Gupta.

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