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By C. Jayden Smith

In the process of recently winning a fitness competition, a San Clemente resident raised around $59,000 to support an Orange County nonprofit that supports children experiencing life-threatening diseases and their families.

Sara Song first participated in the “Stark Naked” competition in 2019, after getting back into training following the birth of her children. Held by personal training and health optimization company Stark, contestants have six months to attain the best physical shape of their lives while simultaneously fundraising for their chosen charities.

A special occasion in 2022 guided Song to give the contest another try, as both the competition and the charity she supported, the MaxLove Project, celebrated their 10-year anniversaries.

“It just seemed like the stars were aligning and that I needed to do it one more time, so I did it again,” Song said in an interview with the San Clemente Times on Monday, Aug. 8.

She initially connected with MaxLove and its co-founder, Audra DiPadova Wilford, at random, while searching for a charity for which to champion before her first entry into “Stark Naked” in 2019. Wilford had overheard Song’s conversation with a trainer and introduced herself and MaxLove, which provides nutrition support, wellness sessions, and mental wellness coaching, among other programs to its clients.

“A lot of what Audra just (said) really resonated with me,” Song said. “As a nurse who has dealt with a lot of end-of-life care in (hospitals) and the treatment of patients, quality of life is a huge factor in the patient’s world and in their family’s world.”

The training during the competition, according to Song, was fun and full of support, enhanced by a team of a naturopath and a nutritionist, tailored fitness programs, Dual Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) scans that measure body composition, and frequent bloodwork checks.

Local San Clemente resident Sara Song raised more than $59,000 for the MaxLove Project, an Orange County charity that provides nutrition support and mental wellness coaching to its clients, and won a fitness competition that strives for participants to obtain the best shape of their lives. Photo: Courtesy of Stark

Plenty of details needed to be monitored, however, as competitors weighed themselves daily, charted their progress, and reported their nutritional intake to coaches. Such intensity could take a toll, Song noted.

“It definitely gets harder month by month as you drop weight,” she said. “In some ways, you gain energy but, in some ways, too, you get hungry and you get tired … and exercising becomes like an expectation.”

Song recalled that taking days off was out of the question, and when combined with efforts to raise money for an organization, she experienced more fatigue over time.

The camaraderie and support of her competitors helped her significantly, especially considering how the number of contestants has grown from around five in the early years of “Stark Naked” to 35 in 2022.

Song got to know the people at Stark’s Newport Beach facility who were training along with her, and formed those relationships through in-person conversations, phone calls, and walks together.

“I loved that part of the process,” she said. “It was probably one of the highlights for me this year, really getting to walk this journey with other people who were doing it as well.”

Near the end of the competition was photoshoot day, which Song called “exciting,” but came with a few hurdles.

“It’s also a mentally hard day, because it’s hard to capture all of the progress and that change that has been made over six months in one picture,” she said.

She remembered how she put pressure on herself during the process in terms of how she would look, and her hope that the photos would turn out well. Song added that the pictures can never show the internal progress, such as learning to make better nutrition choices, managing stress, and improving her sleep habits.

Those habits are retained long after the photoshoot day and the competition’s end, Song said.

“Some of the changes can’t be seen through the lens of a camera,” said Song.

To raise money for their individually-chosen charities, the contestants created events to host and gather donations, as well as called donors for contributions.

Wilford found the alignment between the competition and MaxLove’s goals “beautiful,” in terms of the high quality of life both strive to instill.

The programs MaxLove offers are led by experts in their fields, of which their vetting through MaxLove’s medical advisory board is critically important to ensuring families’ trust in the programs.

“We make sure that the people we work with are experts in the field, that they have a long, successful track record of working with (the) specific populations we serve and demonstrate leadership in those areas,” Wilford said.

Through those efforts, they take the load of verification of the families’ plates, she added.

In fighting to save the life of her own son, Max, Wilford and her husband found the value of integrative therapies that improved Max’s everyday life. However, such care is often too expensive for families in the same situation to pay out of pocket to obtain.

Song’s fundraising efforts, along with other factors, help keep MaxLove going strong and keep program costs free, to which Wilford was grateful. One example of the successes from Song’s work is the newly announced expansion of professional nurse coaching and group acupuncture from once weekly to twice a week.

“Yes, we have events and fundraisers, and we have all kinds of different things,” Wilford said, adding, “But Sara is instrumental in this.”

The winner of “Stark Naked” was determined by a combination of the number of online votes towards each participant’s photo, voting from a panel of judges, and funds raised for charity.

Song was excited and humbled to win, while taking note of the dozens of other people who trained just as intensely as she did.

“I’m still beaming,” Song said. “I just still get giddy and smile when I think about it.”

Wilford characterized the efforts of people like Song as “essential” to supporting families going through the tragic and emotionally draining experience of seeing a child experience cancer or a similar disease. She stated that no one should be forced to fight cancer alone, and acknowledged the massive significance of Song’s fundraising.

As the competitors of “Stark Naked” 2022 raised more than $500,000 for local charities, Song encourages people to become active in the community and support causes that make a positive impact.

C. Jayden Smith

C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.

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