Local joins CNN's 'Fit Nation'

Canton man's journey to health gets publicity
By Stina Sieg | Jan 26, 2012
Photo by: Stina Sieg Bill Wilkins, left, will help whip Canton resident Rick Morris into shape during CNN's "2012 Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge." Viewers can read about and watch Morris' progress on the CNN website and TV channel. The challenge culminates Sept. 18 with Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California.

For most people, the fight to get fit is a private struggle, but not for Rick Morris.

The 43-year-old Canton father, business owner, Army vet and volunteer firefighter dearly wants to be healthy — and knows millions are watching.

Morris is one of the new stars of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CNN’s reality health feature, the “2012 Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge,” during which seven people from across the country chronicle their transformation from being out of shape to being athletes. Like his six counterparts, Morris is planning to compete in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California on Sept. 18.

It’s months away, but he’s got a long way to go. Luckily, Morris has a tough-love buddy on this journey. Triathlete, race director and new Waynesville resident Bill Wilkins has been tapped by CNN to help guide Morris through this metamorphosis, which neither man thinks will be easy.

“Your body has no idea where it’s going,” Wilkins dramatically warned Morris at their very first meeting.

As the two sat on Morris’ front porch and hashed out a training schedule, the triathlete-to-be made it clear he welcomes the challenge.

“Be tough on me. Don’t be afraid to be tough on me,” he told his new trainer. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings or anything like that. Because you’re not going to.”

Wilkins stressed he isn’t about to let Morris skate by, but he also won’t crack the whip. This transformation is meant to be a profound but steady and sustainable process. Wilkins knows that to do this right, Morris has to be in it for the long haul. Luckily, Morris knows it, too.

“I am totally committed to this,” he said, in that first meeting. “There’s no going back now.”

This passion is undoubtedly why Morris was chosen from a pool of countless applicants for this year’s “Fit Nation” feature. With his salt-and-pepper hair, minor belly and kind smile, he doesn’t look particularly out of shape, but his submission video to CNN tells a different story. In the clip, during which he smokes the entire time, he counts off all the things that scare him about his health, from his family’s deadly history of cancer, to his tendency to get winded after climbing a flight of stairs. He talks about how badly he eats, how little he exercises and how much he smokes. He doesn’t want to be a family statistic, he poignantly tells the camera.

“I don’t want to die young from controllable circumstances,” he says. “I want to live.”

And Wilkins, Morris’ five children and his wife, Antoinette, want to help. Antoinette, who has been married to Morris for 24 years, explained that while she knows this will be hard, she’s sure her husband can do it.

“I support him in this,” she said. “It’s great. It’s great that he does it.”

That’s the kind of encouragement that will get Morris across that intimidating finish line. Though he will ultimately be the one swimming half a mile, biking 12 and running four in the upcoming race, in spirit he won’t be doing it alone. He’ll carry all the support from Wilkins and his family with him, not to mention good wishes from people across his community and perhaps even the country.

Morris doesn’t much like the limelight, but Wilkins has impressed upon him how much his story could inspire others. Wilkins likened Morris to a rock being thrown in a pond and causing ripples far beyond the point of impact. Those ripples could touch a lot of people, Wilkins explained, to which Morris quipped that he’s a “pretty big” rock.

“And I’m going to throw you in some deep water,” Wilkins promised.

Regime change

Morris’ new life not only means biking, running and swimming, but quitting the cigarettes and eating right. As this shift takes shape, Wilkins is getting Morris into a smoking cessation class and bringing in a nutritionist from Ingles to help guide him toward a healthier diet. This will all be in addition to the frequent workout sessions at MedWest’s Haywood Regional Health and Fitness Center.

As he inches closer to his goal, Morris will be describing his daily accomplishments and inevitable obstacles on blog posts on the CNN website. Come February, viewers will also be able to watch his progress on CNN’s Facebook page and get occasional televised updates on CNN’s “Sanjay Gupta, MD.” Later, viewers will get to watch Morris and his fellow “Fitness” trainees at group sessions in Atlanta and even Hawaii, where they will get personal advice and training from Dr. Gupta himself. As the months march on, the network’s television crews will also make their way to Canton.

Becoming healthy is hard enough, even without all this exposure, but Morris sounds ready to change. As much as he relishes his privacy, he’s so motivated to turn his life around that he doesn’t mind the spotlight. Being part of CNN means losing some anonymity, but it also means getting Wilkins, a built-in, brand-new friend to help him along the way.

Even at their first meeting, it was clear the two men were connecting. As they parted, Morris offered Wilkins a handshake and a few important words.

“Don’t worry, brother,” he told him. “I’m going to make you proud.”

Whether he knows it yet or not, Morris stands to make his entire community proud, too.

For more information on “Fit Nation,” visit CNN.com/FitNation and watch CNN’s Facebook page for updates and training programs. There will also be regular televised updates on “Sanjay Gupta, MD,” at 7:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on CNN. The participants will be introduced on the show Feb. 4 and 5 and Feb. 11 and 12. Check out upcoming editions of the Mountaineer for additional stories on Morris’ progress.