The weight watchers of Operation Transformation
More viewers than ever have been glued to their TVs for this season of 'Operation Transformation'. The nation has even taken to pounding the streets in support of the likes of Paudie O'Mahoney, a man determined to turn his life around. What has made this midweek show such a phenomenon? Graham Clifford reports
When RTÉ management decided to commission the health and fitness programme Operation Transformation in 2008, they could never have predicted how popular and inter-active the format would become.
First introduced to Gerry Ryan's 2fm radio show, it's now on its seventh consecutive series and this year is on target to set new record viewership figures. Meanwhile, a US network is interested in purchasing the format which would propel Operation Transformation to dizzy heights across the pond – and earn a considerable sum for the financially challenged state broadcaster.
It's already popular in Belgium and Holland where TV stations there recorded their first series of the show in 2013.
"Operation Transformation has been a brilliant piece of public service broadcasting intertwined with a health initiative since it began in 2008. It's really a simple concept in that we ask viewers to 'follow the leaders' in their bid to get healthy, lose weight and transform their lives.
"The viewership figures show how popular the show is and from my point of view it's so rewarding to work with these amazing people," explains series producer Niamh Bradley.
The programme's website has had 7.6 million hits so far this year and there are 124,000 Facebook followers – all this and there are still three weeks left in the current series.
Last autumn, roughly 600 people applied to take part in the show; that figure was whittled down to 20 and eventually to six.
"It's important that the viewers can relate to the leaders so when we're deciding which applicants will go forward to take part we need to consider occupation, age, location and so on. It's that ability to connect with the leaders which keeps people interested."
As Niamh, who's been series producer since 2011, explains the overall objective of Operation Transformation is not to see participants lose excessive amounts of weight but to change their mentality and improve their fitness and lives.
"We're not looking for dramatic body-weight loss really. The objective usually would be for the leaders to lose about 10pc of their weight – we're trying to achieve a lot more than just help somebody diet."
For 61-year-old Paudie O'Mahoney, the shrinking waistline is very welcome but his participation on the programme this year has given the former Kerry football goalkeeper and All-Ireland winner much more – it's handed him his life back.
Almost exactly a year ago Paudie's engineering company closed in Killarney with bank debts of around €700,000.
For years he'd been a heavy drinker and at his lowest ebb he felt as though he didn't want to go on living.
"I would have gone on four major drinking binges a year – every 13 weeks. I'd ring people and tell them not to contact me in advance, that I wouldn't be available and then I'd shut myself away from the world.
"I'd drink two bottles of vodka a day for a week and then one a day for the following week to come down off it. It became my norm," the father of three explains.
Paudie's wife, Kathryn, left him in 1994.
"It was tough on her. I was training teams, including the Kerry Juniors, and there was a good bit of time spent drinking after matches. I would admit that she reared the kids when I was coaching football teams. She did a great job with them.
"When she left she took the kids – they were young teenagers at the time – but she always made sure I got to see them all the time," says Paudie who's the oldest ever leader in the history of Operation Transformation.
When his daughter Roisin gave birth to a son, Daithi, last September, Paudie thought about changing his life but found motivation hard to come by.
"I did think that Daithi would want me to kick a ball around with him in time to come and felt I had to do something to make that happen, to make myself fit. But I was eating badly, I loved sugar and would have ice-cream at night-time watching sport on television. I ended up weighing over 20 stone."
Depressed, overweight and with his personal and business life in tatters, Paudie's fortunes took a turn one Friday afternoon, thanks to his youngest daughter Fiona who returned from living in Canada last year.
"She was going to Cork one weekend in early October and she threw five pages down on the kitchen table in front of me and said 'have a look at that' – it was the application form. I looked at it, went away from it and looked at it again.
"Eventually I decided to fill it in. It was pretty intense, you're telling your life story in it. It was strange, even as I was filling in the form I felt better for the process of explaining what had gone wrong in my life – my eating, my drinking, my self-imposed isolation."
Paudie, the only goalkeeper in the history of the GAA to win an All-Ireland football championship without conceding a single goal (1975), was chosen to take part and by his own admission the last few months have changed his life.
"I feel I can breathe again. I thought I was a bad person and that's why bad things were happening to me, but as I lost the weight, I grew in self-confidence and started to like myself again, my faith in the human race was restored. Walking down the street people are stopping to wish me luck.
"On a walk here in Killarney I met a woman who'd hardly left her home in three years.
"The only time she would go out was to get messages. In many ways she had isolated herself as I had done and didn't socialise or exercise. But then she saw me on Operation Transformation and thought well if Paudie can do it I can do it and so she has. That really touched me, it was brilliant."
The programme has not just transformed his life but that of his family's.
"All my feelings were trapped inside before. A couple of weeks back I was able to tell Fiona that I loved her, that was the first time I'd said it in about 10 years. My son Diarmuid in Canada can't believe what's happening to me.
"He watches all the programmes a few times on the RTÉ Player. I'm a good person to be around now, they've waited a long time for that. The kids don't ever remember my good times. Like they hadn't seen some of the footage of me being cheered off Croke Park in my playing days – which was shown in the first week of Operation Transformation."
Paudie has already lost nearly two-and-a-half stone since the programme began and says that once the cameras stop rolling he's going to continue on the new path he's discovered.
"The way I look at it is that life number one is over – I've worked hard to turn things around, to be positive and gentler on myself and I'm eager to run with life number two.
"The team at Operation Transformation, the other leaders, the public and my wonderful children have helped me to do that – and I'm not going to waste this opportunity to be happy."
OPERATION TRANSFORMATION IN NUMBERS
The number of hits on the Operation Transformation website (www.myot.ie) this series so far
The number of followers the show's Facebook page has acquired600
Number of people who applied to take part in this year's show
The international broadcasters which have purchased the rights to make their own version of the show
The number of series which featured the popular Finnish Dr Eva
The number of Leaders who've quit the show over the years