BENNINGTON -- Wendy Pierce was always active as a child. She grew up riding horses and by high school she ran track and was a cheerleader.
But when she went away to college she fell victim to the "freshman fifteen," and from there her gradual road to obesity was lined with fast food, frequent snacking and a lack of energy that amounted to more time sitting on a couch than on her feet after work.
"I would go home, I would be a little tired, a little stressed, it was just easy to have a snack, then have dinner, then have a snack ... I wasn't watching what I was eating, I wasn't doing any exercise or anything," said Pierce, who is now 42. "I didn't realize how big I had gotten. I knew I was big, but I didn't realize it."
At her heaviest last summer, Pierce, a special educator and administrator at Mount Anthony Union High School, was nearing 300 pounds.
"I'm walking down the halls of the school and looking in (the reflection of the windows) and I'm thinking, ‘Holy cow, I'm really fat.' I have to take elevators everywhere, I can't take stairs. I don't feel like doing much," Pierce said. "I was just kind of going through life. Just going through the motions."
Sitting beside her dog on the couch one evening last October, Pierce made the life-changing decision that she needed to change her habits.
"I just kind of looked at her and she just kind of looked up at me and I was like, ‘man, I bet she's asking me if she wants to go for a walk,'" Pierce said. "So I did that night. I went and got her leash and we walked, just around the block and I thought I was going to stinking die."
Pierce took her dog around the block one time and said she was panting by the time she returned home. "I was like, ‘I've got to do something. This is ridiculous that I can't even walk one block around town without dying.' That night I made the decision that I was going to go for a walk every single night, no matter what."
Pierce followed through on that promise, even on nights when she didn't want to. One block turned into two blocks by the second week, and then three blocks a week or two later.
Pierce also changed her diet, cutting back stops at fast food drive-throughs and limiting her meal portions.
By February -- after just four months of dieting and exercising -- Pierce had lost 50 pounds. With a new confidence and excitement from seeing the numbers on her scale continue to count down, Pierce joined Anytime Fitness in Bennington where she began taking classes, working out on equipment and using free weights.
Since February, Pierce has been on a schedule of visiting the gym four or five days a week and over that time she has lost an additional 70 pounds.
The physical change has been significant -- so much so that her own parents didn't recognize her after going months without seeing their daughter.
After a get-together last summer, it was not until this April when Pierce was able to fly to North Carolina to visit them during school break. Between the two visits Pierce had lost about 100 pounds.
"My dad knew that I was trying to lose a little bit of weight," Pierce said. "But they had no idea I had been successful in losing anything."
Upon arriving, Pierce said she saw her parents waiting from a distance, although they looked right through her.
"I can see them standing there and I was like, ‘oh wait, I don't think they recognize me.' Then I kind of started smiling and getting a little giggly because I was getting more excited. I had lost 100 pounds by that point," Pierce said. "I had probably got, maybe, 15 feet from them and they're just kind of looking at me and I'm like, ‘Dude, are you even going to say hello to me?'"
When she began exercising Pierce's goal was to surprise her parents, although her determination didn't end there. Since April Pierce has continued her exercise routine and has now dropped a total of 120 pounds since last fall.
Along with the newfound energy and motivation has also come health improvements. Pierce no longer is on medicine for her diabetes or high blood pressure that she used to take, and she is also feeling better physically and emotionally.
"She's like a burst of sunshine. Every time she comes in here she always has a smile on her face," said Amy Corey, who owns the local Anytime Fitness club with her husband Jamie.
Co-workers such as Jennifer Fischer, who has worked alongside Pierce as a special educator at the high school for many years, said the changes in Pierce's personality and energy are apparent every day -- and the students also take notice. "At the school she's an inspiration to others, especially the students," Fischer said.
Recently Pierce was given the opportunity to share her story and inspire a much larger audience at the annual Anytime Fitness conference in Chicago, Ill., where she was recognized as one of four "National Member Success Story Winners" from across the country.
Corey believes the success Pierce has enjoyed is most impressive because she has been self-motivated and achieved it without a personal trainer.
"She did it herself. She's had all these people around to help and guide, but it was her heart and her drive that did it," she said.
The weight loss has also allowed Pierce to regain pieces of her past that she thought had been lost. Pierce grew up on a farm riding horses from an early age on up through college. "That was part of me. It was great," she said.
After college Pierce began teaching and no longer had a horse to ride. As she gained more and more weight there came a point when riding was no longer possible.
"Some of my friends had horses and I was thinking, there's no way, one, I can pull my fat butt up on a horse, but I'm not going to do that to a horse either," she said.
While shooting a success video for Anytime Fitness, Pierce was asked if there were any activities her weight had kept her from doing. When the discussion turned to horseback riding, Pierce realized there was no longer anything holding her back. Pierce recently visited Kimberly Farms in Shaftsbury, where she was able to re-introduce herself to the passion she had lost many years ago.
"That's a part of life I had totally forgotten about, and I think I forgot about it because I knew it wasn't accessible for me. Where I was at, I couldn't do it. But being able to do it and ride and just enjoy life was an unbelievable feeling," she said. "That's a part of me that I had lost."
Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at email@example.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi