After Losing 160 Lbs., This Woman Is Fulfilling Her 'Childhood Dream' of Becoming a Firefighter

Penny Leaver lost her job during the pandemic, but now half her size, she was able to pivot and realize her dream of becoming a firefighter

Ever since Penny Leaver was "a little kid," she dreamed of becoming a firefighter.

"I always wanted to be a first responder," the 43-year-old from Farmersville, Texas, tells PEOPLE for the Half Their Size issue. Leaver tried being a police explorer in high school "but really liked the fire side," and always kept it in mind as a possible career.

And when she was young, it seemed doable — Leaver grew up in a household where "we were counting calories as soon as we could add," and she played basketball, softball and was on the drill team. "I was active and thin and I was able to do whatever I wanted to do," she says.

But once she left for college and got away from the "restrictive" eating habits at home, Leaver went in the opposite direction, trying all the foods she couldn't have before and gaining "the freshman 15 times two."

"And from there, it just started spiraling out of control and it never got better," she says.

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Four years ago, Leaver hit her highest weight, 316 lbs., and felt "horrible." She had tried various diets over the years with little success, and had given up.

"I hated myself. I hated the way I looked. I hated the way I felt," she says. "I would have breakdowns in dressing rooms trying on clothes and then go eat afterwards because that was what soothed me."

Penny Leaver
Penny Leaver. Penny Leaver

She was also having health problems — Leaver had polycystic ovary syndrome, was pre-diabetic and had high blood pressure. She also had multiple episodes of SVT, or supraventricular tachycardia, where the sides of the heart stop communicating and her heart rate would race out of control. "It can be very dangerous, and cause heart attacks," she says.

The first few times it happened, Leaver's doctors told her she should lose weight, but she didn't really understand how that would help.

"Nobody really explained to me why or how or what exactly I needed to do until the last time I went to the hospital and the cardiologist was like, 'You're not going to live to your next birthday if you don't get your weight and your life under control,' " Leaver recalls. "And that was what I needed to hear, to be able to be motivated to start something new after failing so many times before."

"I was 40 years old and the thought of not making it to 41 made it clear that I needed to do something."

Leaver heard about the weight loss program Optavia from a friend and decided to sign up. The first week was "awful," she says, because she hadn't fully committed mentally. But she dutifully followed the program, swapping out her fast food meals for lean protein-centered dinners and learning to eat six times a day with healthy snacks like celery and peanut butter to stay full for longer, and found she lost 7 lbs. in that first week.

"I had so much natural energy," she says. "I didn't have to do the Starbucks run at three o'clock just to get through the afternoon. I started feeling amazing and I think that helped even more than the actual scale."

In the first month, Leaver lost 24 lbs. and went from having high to normal blood pressure. That, along with seeing her body change helped her get committed. "I think the pivotal point for me was realizing that this was not a diet, that it was a lifestyle change," she says.

Penny Leaver
Penny Leaver; Nicole Mlakar

Between the food changes, the help of her Optavia coach and the weight loss community, Leaver steadily lost weight, and dropped 160 lbs. — half her size — in 15 months. But in Sept. 2020, she lost her job due to the pandemic and started to "revert back to some old habits," like bored and emotional eating.

"I was stressing about money and trying to find a job and decide what I wanted to do with my life," she says. Leaver talked to her Optavia coach, who pointed out that she could do anything she wanted with her career right now — and Leaver thought back to her childhood dream of becoming a firefighter.

Penny Leaver
Penny Leaver. Nicole Mlakar

"That was when I decided that I was going to get serious about getting physically fit and apply with the fire department," she says. Leaver met with her town's fire chief and started preparing for the physical agility test, which requires intensive tasks like moving a tire with a sledgehammer, dragging a dummy from a building and running up stadium bleachers with a fire hose.

"There's definitely a difference between being fit and being firefighter fit," she says. "You use a whole different set of muscles."

Leaver passed the agility test and finished her first round in the fire academy in September while working as a volunteer firefighter, and is about to start EMT training and the second round at the academy in the spring to earn her full certification.

"I'm very proud of how far I've come," she says of working toward becoming a firefighter. "I never would've been able to do that if I hadn't lost the weight."

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