As recently as a year ago, Austin Piombo weighed 250 pounds and occasionally exercised without a sense of purpose. But after meeting Ferndale native Ryan Engel and hiring him in June as a personal trainer, Piombo now weighs 175 pounds and competed last month in a bodybuilding event.
"I have transformed from being pretty much fat to being pretty toned up and having a lot more lean mass," said the 22-year-old Piombo, who lives in Danville, Calif. "It's about pushing yourself and getting a little bit better every day. I see constant improvement in me every day. I love it."
Piombo credits his physical transformation to Engel, who advises 250 clients in the United States, England, Thailand and Australia via his website ryanengelfitness.com and Facebook page under the same name. Engel, who has written two fitness books, said he is inspired by success stories like Piombo's.
"It's not what I'm doing. It's what my clients are doing," said Engel, 30. "It's what the people I work with are doing because the best thing I can get is I helped motivate them or my story helped motivate them or my training got them where they wanted to be."
Engel's career choice did not begin smoothly. Born and raised in Ferndale, Engel graduated from North County High School and Towson University before deciding to join the Anne Arundel County Police Department.
In August 2012, Engel responded to a call seeking assistance regarding a man in Laurel who was behaving erratically. Tensions escalated, and Engel, the only officer on the scene, said he was compelled to arrest the individual. But during the arrest, Engel said he severely tore several ligaments in his left shoulder and neck.
Facing at least six months of rehabilitation, Engel said he was offered a desk job, but he decided to leave the police force for a job with a tech company in Columbia. Engel, who had been lifting weights since joining the wrestling team at North County as a junior, said he could not pick up anything heavier than five pounds with his injured left shoulder.
"I lost a lot of body mass because during the injury, I gained a lot of weight," he recalled. "I was pretty much in depression. Not clinically diagnosed or anything, but I felt depressed."
Engel's father, Will, said he, his wife Lori and daughter Lindsey didn't notice any depression on Ryan Engel's part. The elder Engel said he thinks his son was frustrated that the injury was a roadblock in his career path.
Engel worked at the firm for only a year. Encouraged by his boss to pursue his passions, Engel recommitted himself to rehabbing his shoulder and becoming a personal trainer.
"It was a rough time for me at that point," he said. "So after that, I decided, 'OK, I'm going to see if I can get back into training.' I was still doing physical therapy at that time. I was going to see if I could just start running and training my legs because I really felt like that was a big part of my life missing. So I got back into some weight training. Really light. Kind of started from the ground up. Ten pounds, 15 pounds, 20 pounds. I saw my strength levels coming back and thought I could have a second shot at everything."
During the recovery process, Engel opened his business via social media. Beginning with 10 clients, Engel crafted workout regimens and diet plans tailored to his clients' physical conditioning and goals. His clients, in turn, checked in periodically to update him on their progress.
Piombo found Engel through Facebook and contacted him. Piombo said he appreciated Engel submitting a plan before he even agreed to hire the trainer, and was even more impressed after he saw the results of Engel's recommendations.
"I'd say it's been a 180-degree difference," Piombo said. "It's night and day, and it's not just my fitness goals, but kind of a little bit of everything. How I look at different opportunities that I have, how hard I can push myself, just pretty much every way. I've transformed into a new person as far as being able to achieve the things I never thought I could. I never thought I could get into this shape."
Engel has undergone a similar change. Weighing 265 pounds at his heaviest, Engel now weighs 205 pounds and placed third in the Class C Division of last year's NPC East Coast Classic.
Engel said he is bench-pressing more than 400 pounds and shoulder-pressing 120-pound dumbbells. He said he still hears a cracking sound in his shoulder when he works out, but he insisted that his shoulder will not stop him from chasing his dream.
"You only get one shot in life," he said. "It was a reality check for me that I needed to pursue what my passion was. And having it taken away from me, my ability to work out, my ability to do the things that I loved in life, it showed me how important that was to me. So, not having it was the reason I pursued it so much."
Will Engel said he is proud of his son's physical and occupational recovery.
"I think it's great," he said. "I just want him to be successful. I know he's got a good product, he's got great ideas and he's very innovative. I really see the sky as the limit for him because he's very determined. When he sets his mind to one thing, he will do it. He doesn't back down until he gets it done — which is a pretty good quality. I can't say that I have that quality, but most people don't."
Tammy Christman, a personal trainer who has known Ryan Engel since October 2014 when they partnered in an online business venture for seven months, said she was struck by Engel's earnestness.
"Whenever I contacted him, he would say, 'What do you want to gain out of our business venture together?'" she recalled. "I said, 'Ultimately, financial freedom would be great, but I don't know how realistic that is.' He said, 'Well, this is how we do it and this is how we're going to do it.' He just really listens. He's a good listener. He understands the big picture of what a client wants and he can lay out the steps."
Engel said he might still be a police officer if not for the injury. As painful as the injury and rehab process were, Engel said he is grateful for how that incident three years ago has changed him.
"This is my true passion, and I wouldn't have discovered that if it wasn't for the adversity here," he said. "I'm very thankful for the journey I've been on because of this adversity. Life-changing for sure, but life-changing for the better."