TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. -- A decade ago, Jo Cooper decided she wanted to live.
Cooper, a Teays Valley resident, had been obese her whole life, but it wasn't until after more than 20 years of struggling with her weight that she said she realized accountability could mean the difference between life and death.
"The weight came on, and honestly, I grew up thinking I could do anything; weight to me wasn't an excuse," Cooper said. "It took me a while to really realize -- even though I knew I was heavy, I still did things."
Cooper has always struggled with her weight. At her heaviest, she weighed 520 pounds and suffered from high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.
Today, she weighs in at about 190 pounds, the lightest she has been since early middle school, and was recognized last month by the organization that helped her achieve her success as its first member to lose more than 300 pounds and maintain her target weight.
Take Off Pounds Sensibly, or TOPS, is a nonprofit weight loss organization that focuses on group support and individual responsibility as a way to lose and maintain weight reasonably. Cooper was recognized at TOPS International Recognition Days held in Calgary, Canada, in July as its first-ever Three Century Award winner for her total weight loss.
Cooper began attending TOPS meetings while in high school, and joined a chapter of the organization while attending Glenville State College. After graduating in 1983, she spent several years away before rejoining the organization in 1991 and helping to found a new chapter in St. Albans.
It wasn't until 2001 that Cooper realized her success would require more than yoyo weight loss without a true goal. She had lost and gained weight during that time, but knew she needed to make a lasting change if she wanted to be healthy.
"I knew I would have been heavier than what I was without TOPS, but I still didn't see it," Cooper said. "They were advertising bariatric centers in Ohio, and at the time, there was nothing like that in this area. My father finally said, 'Jo, what's more important, your life or TOPS?' I was worried about it being TOPS and what people thought.
"I finally decided that I wanted to live."
Cooper underwent duodenal switch surgery, a weight loss procedure where doctors remove part of the stomach and reroute a portion of the intestines, in October 2002. She reached her first goal weight of 268 pounds in December 2003, and has maintained her weight loss since.
"A lot of people think, 'wow, surgery. That's the answer.' It took me a long time to accept the kudos from people, because I felt like people just looked at it like, 'oh, well, it was the surgery. That's why you lost weight,'" she said.