My very first triathlon and I’ve been in the waters of Crystal Cove far longer than expected. I’m on my back fighting to stay afloat. I’m wheezing, coughing up salt water, and my face is painted a painful shade of blue. This catches the attention of a lifeguard who addresses me only to lament, “I’m sorry… You don’t look good. We’re going to have to pull you out.” His agonizing choice of words triggers a reserve of energy deep inside me and suddenly my body is prepared for an onward surge. Again, the lifeguard calls out to me and in a despairing tone says, “It’s cold and you’re in serious trouble.” This time I respond by erupting into my best impression of a proper swim stroke. Yet, I manage to travel only a few meters before sinking back into a struggle for air at the mercy of the ocean. I think and can’t stop thinking. This is it. This will be the first time in my life I quit… In retrospect, I can admit that six weeks may not be enough time to learn to swim before attempting an ocean race. That first triathlon was quite an experience and it put me in a situation that I find all too familiar. I found myself in the midst of struggle, time and again, throughout my early years. As a frequent victim of circumstance, there is only one thing I needed to know about myself. How will I react? Or better yet, how would I choose to react? Will it be fight or flight?
“Mijo, take these food stamps and go get us milk,” said my mother in Spanish. Embarrassed, ashamed, and feeling the anticipated ridicule of the neighborhood, I refused. I knew we were poor, but we didn’t have to announce it. My mom left my drunken dad before my fifth birthday. As a single immigrant mother of three in South L.A., the outlook was bleak. Never having enough, constant complaining and always wanting were expressions that haunted my childhood. Suddenly there came a loud knock. Chills ran down my spine as we ran to hide. The bill collectors were here and my mom’s crying incessantly. I hug my mom and tell her, “I’ll fix this momma.” I am not going to take this anymore. This is not it! This is not the way! We are in need of desperate change and the time is now. I don’t have a plan and the journey is unclear. Only my heart knows the final destination. Success, I’m coming for you.
“You need to get over here, now,” urged my uncle that Christmas night. It was odd that he would call, he never did. My uncle wasn’t the most righteous man. I immediately thought that there was trouble brewing. I quickly searched for a weapon, grabbed a screwdriver and jumped in my car. My mom was visiting Mexico, leaving me as the acting adult. I pulled up and my eyes caught sight of a police car in the driveway. Oh no, this isn’t good. What did my uncle do? I instantly dropped the tightly clenched screwdriver as the officer approaches. “Are you Tony Arreola?” I nod. “Is Richard Arreola your brother?” “Yes, sir,” I responded. “You need to call the coroner’s office…” I can still feel the anguish from those painful words as they ripped through my heart. This was a new type of pain. It was immeasurable and crippling. In a blink of an eye, my best friend was gone. Every time I close my eyes I, it almost seems that I am free falling through the darkest of nights. Christmas had come, and my 21st birthday was in two days. I was the loneliest I could have ever felt. I’m sure this is the end. My life had instantly lost its meaning. Will there be a tomorrow? Would I even care if there was?
There are moments in life that shape you, define you, and reveal your place in life. These three particular events epitomized my struggle and could only be defeated by a viable force. Resilience became my driving force in my quest to unlock life’s answers. Each painful event’s impact threw me in disarray. Life developed a bad habit of knocking me down. I made a promise to myself; I will always get up. No matter the challenge, I will rise, I will be resilient.
Growing up in South L.A. was quite an experience. An ugly combination of poverty and hopelessness, and the thoughts of how much I hated living there. Not only did I hate this neighborhood, but each day that went by, I lived in fear. I shouldn’t have been scared at the age of five years old. I just shouldn’t have. I wanted out. But how? Was there a way out? My five year old self began to ask questions, “Mom, how come there is never enough money? How come I can’t have any new toys? Why don’t we just get more money? Why are you sad Mom?” I love my mom, but she didn’t have the answers. So, what’s a kid to do … I know, I’ll go and get them! My mom spoke little English and worked a minimum wage job. Daycare became my home, and as I watched endless hours of television, my impressionable eyes caught grip of the educational show Sesame Street. It’s here, the first powerful message in my young life. Education is the key. Education opens doors. Education leads to success. The biggest decision any five year could ever make, I would graduate college. The mission was now set: excel in school and unlock the path of success. The first element of achievement is the mind. First, empower your mind; it will lead you to triumph. Thirteen years of sacrifice, thirteen years of diligence, thirteen years of belief, all for one crowning moment; the big envelope arrived.
“Congratulations Tony and Welcome to UC Irvine!”
Numb, I sat in class with a blank stare. It was a month after my brother passed, and electric engineering circuits completely lost its significance. “What’s the point of studying if we’re all going to die anyway?” I don’t have the answers, and I am hurt bad. For the first time in my life I was spiraling and I was as lost as can be. I miss my brother dearly and want to feel close to him again. I inherited most of my brother’s belongings and amongst them, I find a lifesaving treasure. My brother loved to work out and fate left me his weightlifting set. This was it, I found it! Working out to honor my brother is the answer I desperately needed. My passion for fitness had taken on new meaning. Every repetition brought me closer to my brother, and the stifling rage would be released into a punishing workout. As I got stronger, I felt better. As my muscles grew, my soul healed. The workouts gave me strength, the strength gave me healing, and the healing gave me control. I was no longer lost. My destiny had arrived, my future was here. Fitness became the catalyst to spark happiness back into my vulnerable life.
After UC Irvine, I began my career as a personal trainer. If fitness helped me escape the depths of depression, and brought me back to a peaceful state, could its powers be used in other ways? Could my passion be the fuel to inspire others to do more, to aim higher more, to achieve more? Time answered these questions resoundingly as my clients’ lives were completely transformed. Fitness was working and it was helping. As I saw growth in people, I wanted nothing else but to serve more. Clients lost thousands of pounds, ran their first marathons, completed triathlons, and one even biked the West Coast! My passion and my life’s work led me to form my own company, which I named Total Body Project. My goal was to build the brand to preach the gospel of fitness and fulfill my ultimate passion of life empowerment.
My BODY became stronger, my SOUL slowly healed, and my MIND continued to develop. Through this exceptional mixture, I was able to combine my incredible experiences together into spiritual a melting pot. My quest to create the “Perfect Day,” began. Happiness by design would serve as the mantra to propel my life to new heights. If life is truly a gift, then why leave it to chance? If time is limited, why waste any of it? The perfect life is in essence a sum of perfect days, which is a direct result of perfect decisions. Asking myself questions like these only heightened my search. I was getting closer, but what would constitute a perfect day? What needed to happen for my day to be perfect? My mission was to live each day the way it was meant to be, perfect. I thought, a “Perfect Day” would be a day where I loved, laughed, danced, taught, learned … to name a few. The ideal checklist contained 16 tasks that, when completed, would constitute a “Perfect Day.” A brilliant smile illuminated my face, as I made this realization. If I could execute these exact actions every day, then every day would be a happy day, because that day would be … perfect. Suddenly, the big and bad world wasn’t so scary. Each day overflowed with worth and I could not wait to wake up every morning. I found the secret sauce of life! Happiness would be my trademark. I would be that guy that always had the brightest smile and was always having the “Perfect Day.”
As time passed, the wounds of my brother’s death slowly healed. I knew I still needed to find peace. I needed to fight fire with fire, match pain with pain, so I decided to put myself through the most grueling challenge I could imagine: an Ironman Triathlon. The Ironman Triathlon is 140.6 miles of inconceivable pain and it would serve as the greatest tribute. There were only a few key skills holding me back. Firstly, I couldn’t swim. Secondly, the furthest I had actually ran was five miles and that was back in junior high. Last, but not least, I didn’t own a bike. But, what was new? We all have issues, whether health, financial, professional or personal. So what? The challenges we face are ours and ours alone. We know life is a struggle. The only real concern is that we are brave enough to face our fears head on and fight like hell until we prevail. While this particular challenge would be the most physical pain my body has ever encountered, it would pale by comparison to the pain my soul was already victim to.
In slightly over 11 hours, I swam 2.4 miles, biked 112, despite being hit by a truck on mile 55 (a story for a different day.) I found myself turning the final corner on the 26th mile marker. With me were all the emotions of a man who had come into his own by mastering the principles crucial to any meaningful of life. MIND, BODY and SOUL united in perfect harmony that perfect day. As I crossed the finish line, my brother smiled down from the heavens, “Congratulations Tony, you have arrived.”
Tony Arreola is a certified personal trainer who has helped hundreds of clients lose thousands of pounds, with an incredible 90% client success rate. His new book “Get Me Skinny!!” is a short, easily read story that illustrates the true secrets of weight loss. Tony explains the “why” behind the “what” of fitness success. Order Get Me Skinny.