As an elementary school physical education and health teacher, Courtney Milligan knows the importance of diet and exercise. She follows a strict gluten-free diet, loads up on veggies, and works out 4-5 times per week.
With discipline and a positive outlook, it should come as no surprise that she was crowned winner of the 2013 SundaeLu Bikini show.
But Courtney wasn't always the prime example of healthy living. Her love of extremes drove her to give up everything for her teaching career, including her health.
Four years later, "balancing" unhealthy meals with last-minute half-marathons left her sick, exhausted, and completely overwhelmed.
Signing up for SundaeLu helped her return to her athletic roots and embrace the rush of knowing she'd given it her all—and then some.
What initially sparked your interest in fitness?
I grew up with four extremely competitive sisters and a dad determined to get us to play sports. He even went so far as building us our own soccer net. I vividly remember a game of one-on-one where—despite hours of practicing to failure—he refused to let me give up until I learned how to get around a defender. His persistence fueled my drive.
As I got older, I became mentally focused. I loved the high I'd get when I pushed myself to the limit and learned to dig deeper. I wasn't always the biggest or most skilled player, but I knew how to work hard.
You mention that you were always drawn to sports, even if you weren't the best player. What drove you keep at it, even if it wasn't always easy?
I craved the emotional rush of knowing that I'd given it my all and then some. I remember playing soccer for the Northwest Nationals team in Europe when I was 14 years old and walking into a 44,000-seat stadium for the championship game.
I vividly remember the crisp smelling grass and the look of my red-laced, old-school black Copa Mundial cleats with the first bible verse I'd memorized— John 3:16—written on the tongue. My heart was beating uncontrollably knowing that all the hard work and countless hours of extra practice had finally paid off.
So did you win?
Sadly, we lost. Not only did we lose the game, but our loss was local news—we made it to the front page of the paper. I was on my knees, holding my head in my hands, and our goalie was lying on the ground—all while the other team celebrated in the distance. I really hate to lose, but experiencing something like that made me want to work harder.
It's always hard to push through a loss. Has it been smooth sailing since? Have you ever stumbled on a fitness hurdle?
No. About 12 years ago, I became very ill. It was the summer before my junior year of high school. At the time, I was on top of the world. I was in the best shape of my life, had scholarship offers to big schools, and I was determined to be successful. Everything was going as planned.
Then it hit: Something was attacking my joints and causing severe pain in my shoulders and knees. Doctors had no clue what it was and resorted to treating the symptoms rather than the illness.
Trips to the Mayo Clinic, several surgeries to treat kidney problems and injections to prevent pain changed my life completely. I even had to drop out of my last year of college. Being told I would never play sports again turned everything upside down. There were nights where the pain was so great I prayed I wouldn't wake up the next morning. I was ready to throw in the towel.
To this day, there's never been a definite diagnosis, and my health is still a constant battle. But, my medical history is also one of the biggest reasons I strive to live a healthier lifestyle.
What helped you to pull through?
Just when I was questioning my faith in God, an unexpected email from a girl I'd met once years before restored my belief. We'd crossed paths at one of my team's school soccer trips to Europe in junior high school, and, years later, she emailed me out of the blue to tell me that my simple answer of "yes" to her question "Do you believe in God?" had been enough to prevent her from committing suicide that night. At a time when my own faith was waning, someone I'd inspired along the way created this moment of clarity.
I also couldn't have thrived without the amazing support of my family. Going from being a hardcore athlete used to playing 90-minute soccer games, to having to rely on my dad to empty my catheter or my mom to help me walk laps around the kitchen was hard. At the time, I questioned why it all happened.
How did you initially approach fitness?
I went on to play soccer in college, which took my commitment to fitness to a whole other level. It's amazing that the mental and emotional capacity needed to achieve success far outweighs the physical demand of sports. Because I was lacking in size, I felt I had to work twice as hard as everyone else. I remember when preparing for training camp one summer, my goal was to work out as hard as I could until I threw up. Mentally, if I got to the point of throwing up, I knew I had worked hard enough.
I worked out 2-3 times per day, stocked up on fruits, and allowed for the occasional junk-food cheat day. I'd do sprints, run stairs, lift weights, practice soccer, and I integrated some plyometrics. Taking days off and resting were for wimps. When I got to training camp, I knew I had worked harder than everyone else. I thought I was prepared.
Did you hit a wall?
Boy, did I ever. Not only did other players perform better, but my coach also told me that I couldn't play until I had gained 15 pounds. I was in bad shape, and my perception was completely distorted. Turns out I hadn't trained right or fueled my body correctly. It took a good four weeks, but with the help of my nutrition professor and team coach, I eventually managed to gain the weight back.
When I finished playing two years of soccer at community college followed by two years at a Division-I school, I crashed. My health went downhill fast. I never slept, had chronic pain, was plagued with kidney stones, and was constantly sick. My immune system struggled—a continuation from my former health issues.
During kidney stone removal surgery, an accidental slit of one of my ureters caused severe complications. I almost didn't make it out. The stress I put on my body and my unhealthy habits didn't help. I didn't eat right, pushed my body beyond its limit, and was too heavy-handed with pain killers. When I would get injured or I didn't feel well, I'd always tell myself: "Just keep going!" I never took time for my body to heal.
I remember taking painkillers to make due—even passing a kidney stone during half time. Mentally, I could do anything, but physically, it was catching up to me. There was no balance.
Why did you decide to turn things around?
After graduating, I taught fourth grade for one year and fifth grade for three years. In May, I became a physical education and health teacher. I feel it's my job to be an example for the kids—something I failed to make a priority when I was in the classroom. I teach in a gym, and the atmosphere has pushed me to integrate fitness into daily life.
As a role model, I feel it's imperative to display characteristics of what a healthy lifestyle should look like. I want to be out there playing with the kids, running around, and having a blast. Working with hundreds of kids each day, I need to have that sustained energy to fuel my mind and body.
How did you get involved in being in the SundaeLu Bikini show?
Sundae and I grew up together. I remember getting a random text from her asking if I wanted to be in her show. I chuckled to myself and was somewhat in shock when she asked, but I thought "Why not? I'm always up for another crazy and fun adventure."
I remember talking to a friend and asking if I should do it because I was nervous I'd go to the extreme and not eat for a month before the show. I finally agreed to sign up, but told myself that the only way I could was if I made the decision to train in a healthy way.
This sparked my interest in finding out what was really in the foods I was eating, and it motivated me to make working out a priority. I started making gradual changes—preparing my meals ahead of time, eating more frequently, and working out. I didn't think of it as competing in a show, but instead made my goal to get to the point of feeling comfortable in a bikini.
This was something that I had definitely never done before. I'll be honest, I am not your crazy-fit, low body fat percentage, smokin' hot model, but I can definitely say that I will go out there, smile, and have a good time.
How has nutrition played a role in making you feel better?
About three years ago, I was diagnosed with celiac disease. I didn't believe it and wrote it off as a fad of the times. I continued to eat gluten but eventually hit a point of desperation. My joints ached, my stomach hurt, I never slept, I'd get skin rashes, constant headaches, extreme fatigue, and numbness and tingling in my hands and feet. It came to a point where I knew something had to give. Very slowly, I began cutting gluten out of my diet until I was 100 percent gluten free.
I've also cut out processed foods and am in the process of cutting out dairy. It was hard to modify my eating, but once it became habit, I rarely thought about it. I've actually found some truth in the saying "You are what you eat."
Now, I shop the perimeter of the grocery store and buy fresh produce. I load up on vegetables, especially my greens—broccoli, spinach, arugula, asparagus, and kale. Sweet potatoes are my favorite. It's relatively easy to find just about anything gluten free. I've replaced milk with almond milk, and I occasionally use almond flour for baking. Gluten-free spinach with egg whites is one of my favorite snacks; a sweet potato with a bit of almond butter and a dash of cinnamon also tops the list.
While it wasn't the reason I originally became ill—that still remains a mystery—acknowledging that I have celiac disease and adjusting my diet accordingly has helped tremendously with some of my other issues. It took away stomach pains, skin rashes, and headaches. I started to sleep better and have more energy.
Do you have any insecurities?
I'll be honest—I have a lot of insecurities. I never feel like I'm where I want to be, and I compare myself to others. I've always been insecure about my body no matter my weight or body fat percentage. Training is constant. You can work so hard to get where you want to be, and you can lose it so fast.
My insecurities mounted at the Boise Fit Expo. Before the show started, there was another competition. When I saw those girls, I felt like I didn't even compare. I just about turned around and walked away.
What's your biggest strength?
I never give up and can always find a positive in every situation. I'm not perfect, and I fall all the time, but I always get back up. I could easily pawn off my health struggles as a reason for me not to do things, but that's not me. I embrace challenges, and strive for the best.
Do you have any advice on how people can keep up their morale when things don't go their way in competition?
Find something that drives you and focus on that—whether it be sports and fitness related or tied to a longer-term goal. When you focus on one big thing, all the smaller things fall into place. Right now, energy is my driving force. I choose to work out and eat right so I can work toward sustaining energy day in and day out.
As cheesy as it sounds, life is too short to dwell on things that don't go your way. Learn from them and keep going. Right now, my goal is to maintain a healthy eating and workout regimen. I plan to consistently work out 4-5 times per week, and I'm working on setting up a schedule to lift weights in the morning and do a cardio-based activity in the afternoon.
Daily Meal Plan
Note: I combine these with half unsweetened almond milk and half water.
- Jamie Eason's Turkey Muffins
(In place of spaghetti squash)
Favorite Body Part Workout
As a soccer player, I think it's in my blood to naturally want to work out my legs: I love leg days. Depending on my schedule I mix things up, but the main things I focus on are squats, lunges, and deadlifts. I'm all about the high intensity, go-go-go workouts. By the end, my legs are totally fatigued.
This is a great functional workout because it engages the same muscle groups that an outdoor workout would activate. I feel the same burn in my quads and hamstrings that I feel when mountain biking up a steep part of the foothills. I get that same ache and numbness in my quads that I feel while snowboarding through deep powder. This workout forces me to push until my legs are exhausted, and I feel I have nothing left. Then it makes me dig deeper.
I like to set up in a circuit and rotate through the exercises.