MARQUETTE - One year ago, Cassandra Sturos was an in-home caregiver working to write a memoir and dreaming of a life in New York City.
She had dealt with weight and confidence problems for most of her life and on most days last spring, she was having trouble finding inspiration.
"I guess I got in a funk because I thought (the book) needed to have a happy ending and I didn't know how," Sturos said recently. "I didn't know if it would be me losing all the weight or me learning to love myself, but neither was happening."
Cassandra Sturos before she lost a remarkable amount of weight on the television program, “The Biggest Loser.” (Cassandra Sturos photo)
Then she saw the commercial. While watching an episode of "The Biggest Loser" at work, Sturos saw an advertisement for a July casting call for the next season of the show. She loved the show and, having struggled with her own weight for years, saw the program as an opportunity to begin a new life.
But she had these thoughts once before. Sturos, a native of downstate Fowlerville and a 2009 graduate of Northern Michigan University, had planned to go to a similar casting call a few years before. When the time came, she hit a wall.
"I just chickened out," she said recently. "I didn't go."
During a nonfiction writing class at NMU three years ago, Sturos found that writing about and discussing her weight troubles was cathartic. It was then that she decided to begin writing a memoir and she credits that change of heart with pushing her over the edge and toward "The Biggest Loser."
Driving to the audition, Sturos ran the possible consequences through her mind.
"Best case scenario, you make this amazing weight loss show and it changes your life," she said. "Worst case scenario, it makes a great excerpt for your book."
Sturos first auditioned for the show in July. Contestants on season 13 of "The Biggest Loser" came to the show in pairs, and when the season debuted on Jan. 3, Sturos was there, along with her grandmother, Nancy Rajala.
In the first episode, Sturos weighed in at 239 pounds. At the finale - which took place seven months after the taping of the first episode - she weighed 147 pounds. She had lost more than 38 percent of her body weight.
"I was very happy with that, and honestly, it started meaning less to me as I got into the low 150s and the 140s," she said. "Standing on the stage at the finale ... even without having won, I don't think I could have been happier. I felt great. I do feel great."
Footage of the contestants' first workout each season is typically peppered with shots of competitors gasping violently for breath, tipping over or vomiting into small buckets.
Still, Sturos said TV can't come close to depicting the reality of the situation.
"I felt like I was in war zone on red alert," she said. "It was fight or flight. I felt like I should dash into the mountains. It was like, 'I can still leave.'"
She said she was daunted by the glare of "The Biggest Loser" trainer Bob Harper, daring her to be the first to jump off her treadmill.
"For days after that first workout, I was terrified to work out with him again," she said.
Over the next few months, Sturos was routinely surprised and often uncomfortable.
She slowly accepted the idea of working out for six to eight hours, six days a week and soon realized she often felt better after a hard workout. She grew accustomed to the swarm of television cameras. She came to deeply appreciate Harper and bonded with many of the other contestants, who were going through, and had gone through, many of the same things as Sturos.
And though she didn't win - that honor went to Jeremy Britt, who lost 199 pounds during the course of the show - she said being on the show is the best thing that has ever happened to her.
"I can't say it any other way than it was the best experience of my life," she said.
Back home in Michigan now, Sturos is employed at a coffee shop and works out routinely. After her latest journey, she is finally ready to move toward her big city dreams. She has interviewed for a few jobs in New York, including at Conde Nast Traveler, and plans to move in the coming weeks.
And she is still plugging away at the book - which is now bolstered by a journal filled with stories from the "Biggest Loser" ranch - and claims writing is a form of therapy.
"It's my greatest passion. It's what I know I'm meant to do," she said. "When I got eliminated (from the show) I started writing again and was like, 'Hey. This book might have a happy ending after all.'"
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.