Melissa Ludwig

When Michael Mercado first met Benjamin Alvarez, he thought Alvarez was, well, a derriere kisser. Alvarez was so kind to everyone that Mercado was convinced it was a put-on.

The two met when H-E-B chose them to be among 24 contestants from all over Texas in the first-ever Community Slim Down Showdown, a 16-week “Biggest Loser”-style competition aimed at losing weight the good old-fashioned way, through diet and exercise.

At nearly 450 pounds, Alvarez was the biggest guy in the competition. He took one look at Mercado and thought, “You’re too small to be here, go back to Jenny Craig.”

Four months later and a combined 125 pounds lighter, the two men now call each other brother, their camaraderie so strong that they no longer care who wins the $10,000 grand prize.

Michael Mercado and Benjamin Alvarez pose for a photo during the HEB Slimdown Showdown
Michael Mercado and Benjamin Alvarez pose for a photo during the HEB Slimdown Showdown. Photo by Shane Kyle.

“We won our lives back, our health, our confidence,” said Mercado, a social worker at Haven for Hope.

But of course, someone had to win the money.

On Sunday, at a packed ceremony at the Pearl Stable, H-E-B crowned Alison Spangler, a graphic design teacher at John Paul Stevens High School, as the $10,000 grand prizewinner.

Looking shell-shocked, the statuesque blond accepted her giant foam check with tears in her eyes.

Alison Spangler receives her winnings.
Alison Spangler emotionally receives her winnings. Photo by Shane Kyle.

“I couldn’t have done it without everyone,” Spangler said to her fellow contestants. “You are my friends, my family.”

Spangler lost 48 pounds, whittling her 5’11 frame from a size 24 to a size 16. She’s only halfway to her goal and isn’t looking back.

“Before, I wasn’t doing anything at all. Zero. Now I exercise every day,” she said. Like many of the contestants, the journey has been an emotional one for Spangler.

“It’s not shiny and happy every day, it’s a battle,” she said. “But I have had so much support. Students see me in the hallways and cheer me on. Even students I have never had in class stop and give me high-fives.”

Overall, the 24 contestants lost a total of 956 pounds and improved their health numbers significantly. Total cholesterol for the group dropped by 804 points.

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H-E-B determined the overall winner using three metrics – overall health and weight loss, participation and fan engagement. Each contestant kept a blog at and won points for the number of comments, likes and shares of their posts.

Lorena Flournoy, a school social worker from Austin, won the $5,000 “fan favorite” prize rewarding the contestant who was able to engage the most online activity and chatter. Lorena lost 53 pounds and garnered nearly 32,000 likes, shares and comments on her blog.

Overall, the contestants penned more than 1,300 blogs, attracting a quarter of a million page views and 63,000 comments.

In a last minute decision, H-E-B President Craig Boyan decided to kick in an additional award for the contestant with the most dramatic weight loss. Reuben Ybarra, a public health nurse from Victoria, was named a “Healthy Hero” and won $3,000 for losing 85 pounds during the competition.

“I was so inspired,” Boyan said. “It’s not easy to share yourself and expose yourself in that way. We are really proud of our contestants. We think they are ambassadors for the state of Texas and H-E-B.”

Contestants were selected from a pool of over 500 applicants based on their willingness and ability to publicly share their journey.

Applications for the 2013 Slim Down Showdown are now being accepted through Oct. 21 at

The contest began in June with a four-and-a-half day wellness seminar in San Antonio with experts from H-E-B, Methodist Healthcare and the Cooper Aerobics Center. Each contestant received a full health screening and learned about nutrition, how to control portions and how much exercise their body needs to stay healthy.

Upon returning home, contestants logged fitness activities and food intake using a mobile application, received weekly coaching, and blogged about the experience at

The finale celebration was held conjunction with the fall Síclovía – a free event hosted by the YMCA of Greater San Antonio that closes the streets to cars to promote recreational and sports activities, and CULINARIA’S FEASTIVÀL, all sponsored by Healthy at H-E-B.

Though Alvarez didn’t win the money, one of his last blogs shows just how far he came. Alvarez made a video of himself at rock bottom in 2008, his health so deteriorated that he had to call an ambulance. It took six firemen to load him onto a stretcher.

Benjamin Alvarez struts his stuff on stage.
Benjamin Alvarez confidently struts his slimmed-down self on stage. Photo by Shane Kyle.

With such a mountainous challenge ahead of him, Alvarez found himself floundering at the beginning of the competition. Mercado saw it. Proud and competitive, Mercado could have looked away. Instead, he started working out with Alvarez, sharing his trainer and opening himself up to a new friendship.

Mercado discovered that Alvarez’s kindness wasn’t fake — it was the real deal. Today, he is 382 pounds and determined to continue with his new healthy lifestyle.

“I used to use my smile to hide my sorrows. Now it’s genuine,” Alvarez said.

Read Melissa’s story about the challenge’s start in July here.

A former education reporter at the San Antonio Express-News, Melissa Ludwig works as a senior account supervisor at the DeBerry Group, where she manages public relations for H-E-B’s education and health initiatives. She also fronts the Melissa Ludwig Band.  You can follow Ludwig on Facebook.

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