No two ways about it, the guy is a loser — one of the biggest losers around. The bad part is that he once was, well, very big around.
Ryan Newburn's waste measurement, in fact, was 46 inches around. Now, he sports a trim 31-inch waistline.
After weighing 320 pounds, he took two to three years to drop to 180. Because of a rigorous weight-lifting program, the 6-footer has settled in at a muscular 205.
If achieving such a health goal isn't impressive enough, he has set a bigger one: walking around the world.
“I have a mixture of emotions,” Ryan said. “I'm scared, I'm excited and I'm nervous. But I'd also like to do the greatest thing I've ever done in my life.”
And so on March 4, the day after his 24th birthday, Ryan Newburn will fly to Japan to embark on a four-year adventure. To the heavy guy he once was, his massive weight loss and improved health may seem like a miracle — but, no, the slimmed-down Ryan is not claiming he can miraculously walk on water.
He'll connect the dots of some countries with flights. But the plan is to walk Japan and New Zealand this year, and then Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand next year.
Wearing a straw hat and a backpack, he hopes to walk parts of China and Russia in 2016, and enter Europe in 2017. He eventually will fly from Dublin to New York and finish off with a brisk walk across the United States.
Can he really do it? Skeptics may say “fat chance.”
But Ryan, who will blog along the way on strawhatbackpacker.com, is determined.
“I've always wanted to travel,” he said, “and I've wanted to become a strong person mentally and physically.”
Ryan said his family has tended toward heaviness. He grew up at Sam's Italian Villa in Council Bluffs, started by his grandfather, the late Sam Longo.
“I got all the free food I wanted,” Ryan said. “I didn't exactly develop good eating habits.”
By junior high, he had developed an intense interest in a card game of strategy called Yu-Gi-Oh. He got so skilled that he traveled to competitions around the country — often eating fast food.
He hit his peak weight of 320 as a senior at Papillion-La Vista High School. He began college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln but continued competing — and finished third out of more than 1,200 people at the Yu-Gi-Oh national championships in Pittsburgh.
That won him a free trip to Tokyo, and at 19 he flew there in 2009 to compete for the world title. He did well, losing to the eventual champion.
His international success in that strategy game — he was featured in The World-Herald — got him thinking more strategically about his health.
“I started to have a different mindset,” Ryan said. “I thought if I can do something great like that, nothing should stop me from doing anything I wanted to do. It inspired me to lose weight.”
He recalled watching a lot of TV and eating too much.
“I couldn't stay on a diet,” he said. “I was just so big. I was completely disgusted and didn't want to stay that way. I felt kind of lonely and didn't want that to affect me the rest of my life. I also didn't want to die early.”
Where to start?
“The first night I decided to lose weight, I went outside and ran to the mailbox, about 100 feet from our house, and then walked around the neighborhood. The next day, I ran a little farther, to the street light, and the next day I ran to the next street light over.”
He gradually increased his distance up to miles. But the hard part, he said, was cutting calories.
He had moved in with his father, Mike Newburn, who has watched Ryan's transformation.
“What I've seen is truly amazing,” Mike said. “He did this without bariatric surgery. But what amazed me the most is the discipline he's had with eating. It all starts at the grocery store, and the choices he has made have helped him get to where he is.”
It's a poignant irony that as Ryan prepares to embark on his walk around the world, Mike is trying to walk across the room.
A virus attacked his spinal cord in 2010, and the inflammation left him without fine motor skills and the ability to walk. A 59-year-old Navy veteran, Mike uses a wheelchair. He is taking swim therapy and a few weeks ago took steps with a walker.
He hopes to improve enough to meet up with his son in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Mike will follow him on his computer through a tracking device that Ryan will wear. It allows them to send a limited number of texts.
After losing weight, Ryan had hoped to travel the world through the Navy like his dad, and enlisted. But a recurrent injury in boot camp — connected to surgery from a previous broken ankle — caused the Navy to send him home.
Starting the worldwide walk in Japan relates to Ryan's previous trip there for the Yu-Gi-Oh world championships. After arriving, he will attend the wedding of a friend he met in Tokyo.
Ryan then will take a bullet train from Osaka to the southern tip of Japan, Cape Sata, and walk 2,000 miles to Cape Soya in the north. In September, he will fly to New Zealand to complete the cross-country Te Araroa trail.
He has researched visitor and work-visa laws and will fill out legal documentation for the countries where he will walk. He has saved money but plans to work along the way to pay for his trip.
Like his father, Ryan works at Horsehoe Casino in Council Bluffs. He plans to sell all his possessions before leaving, including his laptop.
“I want to strip all those comforts away,” he said, “and know what it feels like to actually have to struggle — and grow from it.”
While preparing for the trip, he had visited Canfield's Sporting Goods, which has become a sponsor, paying for his gear and offering to replace it along the way. A going-away party will be held at Canfield's, 8457 West Center Road, from 1 to 6 p.m. on March 2.
Besides achieving his dream of travel and trying to become the best mental and physical version of himself, Ryan said, he is making the trip to inspire others. He hopes it raises money through donations to the charity walkfromobesity.com.
Though discouraged at his former weight — when a walk around the block looked almost as daunting as a walk around the world — he didn't give up and despair that there was nothing he could do about it.
“There is always something you can do about it,” Ryan said. “Anything you want in life is worth attaining with hard work. If I wanted to be in the best shape of my life, there was nothing to stop me but me.”