Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
 / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor
By Louise Barile

Michael Ventrella is half the man he used to be, and for that the Chicago DJ is the newest champion of “The Biggest Loser: Couples.”

After his historic win Tuesday night in Los Angeles, Michael took a red-eye flight to New York to talk about it Wednesday with TODAY’s Meredith Vieira, who asked him if he could believe he won the $250,000 first prize.

“It’s been like a bad car crash. Everything happened so quickly and I’m like in shock,” Michael said.

But it was a happy kind of shock, and Michael couldn’t stop smiling as he talked about his achievement in losing 264 pounds and setting several weight-loss records along the way.

Hopelessly heavy

When he walked onto the show’s ranch with his mother, Maria, Michael weighed 526 pounds. If someone had told him then that he would prevail against a strong field of competitors, he said, he would not have believed it.

“I would think that they were drinking hallucinogenics,” Michael said.

But there weren’t any viable choices left. He was 30 years old when the show began, and had tried every weight-loss fad diet, pill and magic potion there is. None had worked.

“At 526 pounds, nobody at that weight can ever feel any sense of hope,” Michael told Vieira. “You feel like any day is your day, is your time: You’re going to die.”

He had moments of crushing despair during his 18 weeks on the ranch, but he kept coming back and working even harder. “I realized, ‘You know what? I’m going to give it everything I got to battle this and tackle this because I’m done with being like this,’ ” Michael explained.

The 31-year-old was the heaviest contestant ever to participate in “Biggest Loser.” By the show’s finale Tuesday night, he had dropped just over half his body weight — 264 pounds — to finish the competition at 262 pounds.

Breaking records

Michael racked up some impressive numbers along the way. He lost 34 pounds the first week at the ranch, a record. He also lost his first 100 pounds faster than any other contestant in the history of the popular NBC reality show. He’s the only contestant ever to lose 200 pounds while living at the ranch.

Michael told Vieira that he will continue to lose weight.

“My motivation is to get healthy and live a long life; live a life that my grandfather didn’t get to live to his fullest, and my grandmother didn’t get to live to her fullest,” he said. “As far as how I’m going to keep it off, I’m not that Michael at 526 anymore. I’m a new person that’s been reborn. The workout regimen, the eating regimen, is all second nature to me now.”

Michael had attributed his weight to the role food played in his Italian family. It still occupies a central position, he said.

“We’re an Italian family. We make food an event. It’s an occasion for all of us. That’s our time to spend together,” Michael told Vieira. “Those traditions can still go on. We’re just going to do it in a healthier fashion.”

He also took time to praise his mom, who left the show early but came out of it with a new body and a new attitude.

“That lady is radiant,” Michael said of Maria. “She’s so full of life, so beautiful.”

Bold move

Despite his achievements, Michael seemed like a long shot to win the season, competing in the final weeks against younger, more athletic players like Ashley, Daris and Koli, who left the ranch closer to their weight goals.

During makeover week, while the other remaining contestants celebrated their new sizes, even a 200-pound weight loss had failed to get Michael out of the “big & tall” men’s stores.

In a season of very competitive players — the Red team’s Melissa and Lance and Gray’s tag-team cousins Koli and Sam were powerhouses in physical challenges and strategy — Michael managed to stay in the front of the pack through a combination of smarts, willpower and determination.

In week 7, he snatched up control of the game when he won a “Temptation” allowing him to split the group into two teams any way he desired. So Michael stacked the deck. By putting all the strongest men on one side — his, of course — he guaranteed that many of the older, female contestants would be eliminated. Michael’s bold move was the biggest game changer of the season.

Some might say that Michael had an unfair advantage over all the other players because at 526 pounds he had the most weight to drop, and therefore the potential to lose the greatest percentage of body fat.

Troubling trend?

But to cut the weight he had to do the work — and he did most of it at home, without the show’s trainers, doctor or other contestants to push him. Truly, it’s a monumental achievement and he deserves the title.

It’s worrying because, again this season, several contestants were sent to the hospital after injuring themselves or falling ill.

“The contestants keep getting bigger and bigger,” trainer Jillian Michaels said at the start of season 9. “As the trainers, we have no say over the challenges. We worry about them.”

Finale night

In a season of big feats, the live season finale of "The Biggest Loser: Couples" was full of big surprises.

Two contestants, the White team’s Michael and the Pink team’s Ashley, had safely made it through to the grand finale. Two other contestants — Koli, of the Gray team, and Daris, wearing Orange — had both fallen below the yellow line. America was asked to vote on which of them would be allowed to compete for the grand prize of $250,000 and which would be eliminated.

America voted and Daris’ youthful charm beat Koli’s intense confidence. “I couldn’t be prouder of Daris,” his mom, Cheryl, said at the finale. “On the 'Biggest Loser' campus I saw a boy turn into a man.” He also did his trainers proud. Daris, who stepped on the scale first, weighed 178 pounds, which was an impressive total loss of 168 pounds or 48.55 percent of his body weight.

Finally Michael came up to the stage holding a white rose, which he presented to his mother, Maria, who had been on the show as his partner.

“I am feeling proud of myself — which is a new feeling,” Michael said. He had reason to be proud. His final weight came in at 262 pounds, a loss of 264 pounds. By dropping 50.19 percent of his body weight, Michael took the title of Biggest Loser and the $250,000 prize.

“This time I gave it my all. I did it the right way and it worked,” he said.

In the at-home competition, although Sherry took the early lead, she was bested by Darrell, who lost 189 pounds or 45.76 percent of his body weight. But the other man of the evening turned out to be Koli, who lost 215 pounds or 53.35 percent. It was enough to win him the $100,000 "at home" prize. 

—With additional reporting by Mike Celizic