Photography by Toshi Tasaki
Photography by Toshi Tasaki
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Sampson’s wife, Yoshiko, a top-ranked swimmer, gave him inspiration for his new lifestyle.
The strict Medifast plan suited him. “When I talk to other people about losing weight, they’ll say, ‘Oh, but I get tired of the same food; I need variety.’ I don’t need that. A regimen is much better for me.”
Thirty pounds later, the benefits of weight loss kicked in. He noticed a difference in his energy levels. “I hit that point where suddenly I said, ‘Wow, I’m much lighter.’ I felt better, more active. Walking through the hallways at work, I had an extra spring in my step. I looked forward to getting home and doing some raking. I’d wander into the woods to do more raking.” Viewers started approaching him to tell him how great he looked. His doctor beamed when he saw his lower cholesterol numbers. By the spring of 2011, Sampson was fitting into clothes he hadn’t worn in years. That April, on his way to a lacrosse reunion at Cornell, he found an old gas receipt in the pocket of a vest he hadn’t worn in years. He’d paid $1.35 a gallon.
Sampson says if anyone is a fitness role model, it’s Yoshiko. “She’s a ball of energy.” Sampson spent much of the 1970s and ’80s in Asia, working at English-language news stations from Guam to Hong Kong to Tokyo, where he helped launch CNN’s Asia Pacific bureau. In Osaka, he also taught English on the side, and Yoshiko, a dozen years younger, was one of his students. They didn’t begin dating until he visited her family’s noodle restaurant to partake in a Japanese tradition. “On New Year’s Eve, you’re supposed to eat long noodles for a long life,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, this young woman shows up in heels, a cocktail dress, her hair up, and suddenly I thought, ‘She doesn’t seem too young now.’”
Today, Yoshiko Sampson teaches physical education and health at Keio Academy of New York, the Japanese boarding school in Purchase. She is also a top-ranked Masters swimmer who tips the scales at 100 pounds, if that. “Has her weight changed in the last twenty years? I don’t think so,” says Sampson, who is thankful that the gene-pool lottery blessed his sons with their mom’s slender build. Both Takayoshi (Tak), 21, a junior at McGill University in Montreal, and Kazuyoshi (Kaz), 13, inherited her swimming gene as well. As his big brother did, Kaz competes on the Katonah Swim and Dive Team in the summer and the Empire Swim Team in the winter; last August, he took gold in the breaststroke at the Westchester County Swimming and Diving Championships.
Sampson himself prefers dry land training (though he loves scuba diving and snorkeling), but he attends every meet and most practices. “I watch swimming,” he says. “I write ribbons and do a little announcing.”
Sampson before his 50-pound weight loss.
The Empire Swim Team practices at the Hackley School in Tarrytown, and on an early spring day after work, he and Yoshiko stand on the pool deck to watch Kaz and the team. Yoshiko wears a sarong over yoga pants, and her long black hair falls over a white down vest. Sampson knows this pool well: His father was a sports coach who worked at several Westchester schools, including a stint as Hackley’s athletic director in the 1960s. Sampson lived with his family on campus and attended the school from the sixth through 12th grades. In the summers, Sampson worked as a swim instructor and lifeguard at this very pool, and he can still point out the spots where, as a young man, he saved two people from drowning.
Yoshiko is pleased her husband has turned his attention to saving himself. She appreciates Matt Sampson, Fitness Guy! “He moves more at home and he helps out more,” she says above the riotous splashing of two dozen young people thrashing through the water. “When he was heavier, he just sat down.”
Dropping major pounds is one thing; keeping them off is an entirely different challenge—especially when you’re not the athlete you used to be. Last fall, Sampson injured his neck and shoulder while playing tennis with Yoshiko. “She bounced a high one, and I thought, ‘I used to be real good at hitting those.’ I went to hit that huge overhead. It was a mistake. I couldn’t walk for several months, and, for every week I wasn’t walking, I gained a pound.”
Fifteen pounds crept back on—“I was afraid of jumping on a scale”—but Sampson is back on Medifast and walking again. He’d like to get his weight down in the 170s, but he’s worried that his face will look too gaunt. “When I get down to one eighty, people say, ‘Is there something wrong with you?’” He paraphrases the famous Catherine Deneuve quote about losing weight as you age: “You have to choose between your face and your derrière. Only in my case, it’s my waist.”
He’s also focusing more on his overall health, drinking less caffeinated soda and more seltzer and going for a walk when Kaz has a long stretch between races. He carries an extra Medifast bar for those late practices to fend off fatigue-induced munchies. “The hard part is later in the day, when I get tired and my resistance is low.”
And he can almost keep up with his wife. She takes flamenco lessons in the city, and he’s thinking about joining her for a couples’ salsa class. He says that the best indicator of his weight loss was “when she could reach around me and touch her hands again.” And, right there on the pool deck, he pulls her close to demonstrate.
Dana White‘s last piece for the magazine, which appeared in the November issue, was about military veterans.