Reality TV Gives Participant a Hunger for Triathlon and Allows him to Set an Example for his Students

By Pete Williams | Oct. 29, 2019, 2:23 p.m. (ET)

side by side, before and after robbie lost weight

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 USA Triathlon Magazine

Most people who make dramatic lifestyle changes point to their families as inspiration, and Robbie Gibbons, a 45-year-old married father of four who lost 170 pounds in one year, is no exception.

But the middle school athletic director, who lives in Birmingham, Alabama, says his transformation from a guy who weighed an estimated 420 pounds (his bathroom scale only went up to 400) to a competitive Clydesdale triathlete weighing 245 wasn’t just because he wanted to stick around for his kids, who range in age from 14 to 23, and his wife of 24 years.

Gibbons knew his family would accept him regardless of weight; they knew him no other way. But he didn’t want them to suffer for it. One of his daughters remarked that she didn’t look much like her mother but couldn’t tell if she resembled Gibbons because of his weight. His younger daughter, a talented athlete, took grief from teammates for having such a non-athlete dad.

“She was getting picked on because of my size and that’s when my ‘why’ for doing this changed,” Gibbons said. “It wasn’t just because I worried that I wasn’t going to be around but because I was affecting their lives.”

As a health and physical education teacher, Gibbons worried that he wasn’t living the life he was instructing. Always a big kid growing up, he played football at Samford University. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he was sized perfectly for tight end. But after struggling with his weight, coaches moved him to offensive guard, encouraging him to gain more for the position. He packed on 75 pounds in one offseason and, unlike some linemen who lose the weight once their playing careers end, Gibbons kept adding pounds over the next two decades.

By the summer of 2017, it was all he could do to sit under a beach umbrella in the heat as two of his children raced in the Eddie Ferrell Music City Triathlon, a sprint event in Nashville. He vowed afterward that he’d compete in the event the following year, even though he weighed 415 at the time.

Years earlier, Gibbons had tried out for a spot on “The Biggest Loser,” the reality weight loss series on NBC. Though he wasn’t chosen, casting directors kept his contact information and in September of 2017 he was chosen as one of 12 contestants for “Castaways,” an ABC TV reality survival show filmed on deserted islands in Indonesia.

Seven of the contestants quit, but Gibbons and four others lasted the entire six weeks. The experience served as a jumpstart to his transformation. He lived mostly on fish he caught (fish still accounts for much of his protein consumption). At one point he swam between islands and got caught in a vicious current that pulled him out to sea before he swam safely to a third island — an experience that makes any choppy triathlon swim pale in comparison.

Mostly though, the 41 days gave him time to think. “I realized I was living in shame, and that’s no way to live,” he said. “I finished that six weeks with a great sense of accomplishment, and that’s why I embraced triathlon since it gives you a similar feeling.”

He completed three triathlons in 2018, including the Eddie Ferrell, and finished five this year, winning the Clydesdale division in one. He plans to move up to the Olympic distance in 2020 and eventually attempt an Ironman. His wife Brook took up triathlon and now they put races on the calendar and look forward to them together.

Gibbons must be at work by 7:15 a.m., which means training often starts at 4:30 a.m. He usually swims three weekday mornings before jumping in a group cycling class and does strength training the other two weekdays. He tries to squeeze in running during lunchtime at school and takes longer runs on weekends.

He also trains with Team Magic, the Southeast Region multisport club that co-hosted USA Triathlon’s Clydesdale and Athena National Championships in Chattanooga in June.

These days, Gibbons looks the part of a fit, active PE teacher. He’s become a motivational speaker, using his “Castaways” experience of “surviving on an island” as a metaphor for tackling challenges in life. No longer does his youngest daughter hear comments about what her father looks like — unless it’s about his athleticism.

“Triathlon has brought balance back to my life — physical, social and mental,” Gibbons said. “It’s provided me with the mental toughness to believe that I can get through anything.” 

Pete Williams is a writer living in Clearwater, Florida. 

robbie running with a smile