Austin Preisler’s dentist posed the obvious question to his noticeably shrinking patient.
“How do you lose weight working at a chocolate store?”
The health journey for Preisler, 28, of Port Washington, entails a more compelling story than the ironic anecdote.
After Preisler’s grandmother had a stroke last year at age 88, “I tried to figure out the best way for me to do something for her that only I would be able to do,” he said.
Preisler, who has participated in a few polar plunges, decided to jump into Lake Michigan for 88 days straight in her honor, starting Jan. 1.
But his grandmother said she at least wanted to live to be 90, and his father told Preisler that was so close to 100 that he should shoot for that milestone.
On Sunday, Preisler made his 100th plunge in warmer conditions than he had grown accustomed to.
“It was amazingly refreshing, and the waves were gentle on the lake,” Preisler said.
In the meantime, he is one year into a weight-loss journey that has shed 111 pounds – going from 281 to 170 – and for several of those months has been working at the Chocolate Chisel.
Preisler did it all through cutting calories and daily walks of increasing distance.
Neither has been easy.
Preisler’s plunges took him through the dead of winter, sometimes in temperatures below zero. He stays in the water from five to 15 minutes, and he takes a selfie after each one.
Despite shoveling snow in shorts and a T-shirt – his family calls him “Mr. Warmth ”- Preisler was shocked by the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.
“You don’t realize how cold it is until you start shivering and you get warm,” he said.
Most of his plunges were done at Port Washington’s south beach, but a few had to be relocated due to ice on the lake. Some were in Sauk Creek near the power plant or at north beach.
After one plunge, he lost feeling in his ring and pinky fingers on his right hand for three days after keeping them under water too long.
He saw an otter once, startled two fish that caused them to swim back up the creek under the ice and had an incident with a not-so-friendly feathered friend.
On an early February morning, about 12 geese were hanging around on the ice when Preisler made his way out for his dive.
“I turned my back toward them and heard flapping,” he said.
A goose aggressively approached Preisler, who tried to fend it off with his foot.
“If there was anybody watching, they would have seen a guy in a swimsuit playing footsie with a goose,” he said.
“I know these are all Canada geese, but they don’t share the Canadian niceness.”
After his plunges, he comes home, warms up – sometimes he shivers for 30 minutes – and gets ready to walk.
Preisler remembers being overweight for years – he was 180 to 190 pounds in middle school, 195 to 200 in high school and topped out at 281 a few years ago.
“So, frankly, for me to be where I’m at over the last year is kind of amazing,” he said.
His doctor had mentioned losing weight for a few years, but Preisler, like many people, struggled to get started.
His driver’s license photo motivated him, along with tracking his diet. A two-day calorie journal showed intakes of 4,200 and 4,700.
“At that point, I said that’s gotta stop,” he said.
Preisler knocked his diet down to 1,700 calories per day and let his body adjust. Then, he started to walk.
Early on, walks entailed trips to and from his job as evening manager of Chocolate Chisel, 1.6 miles one way.
Since he wanted to walk farther, he moved his routine to the mornings. Now, treks reach as far as nine miles.
Walking was inspired by his father, John, who kept asking Preisler if he wanted to join him on walks or runs. He kept declining, but now he bumps into his father di lui now and then, and he plans to do Portal’s two-mile walk with his sister di lui on Fish Day.
Preisler walks all over the city, sometimes listening to music. “I’m old-school new school. I still use an iPod Nano ”that has 28 hours of music, he said.
Tunes help him move. While listening to music, Preisler can cover eight miles in one hour, 54 minutes. Without music, it takes two hours and six minutes, he said.
Other encounters on his treks help keep him going. He sees people walking huskies near Inventor’s Brewpub, waves to a female mail carrier near Lions Park and shares quips with a “lovely gentleman.”
“Those are the little things that make the walks a little easier.”
Catching fall color on streets he has never been on and appreciating the architecture of old buildings are other positives. His father and grandmother tell him what the buildings used to house.
When it’s cold, Preisler dons his grandfather’s military-issued wool trench coat, which also serves as a point of pride for his weight loss. He couldn’t fit into it before, but now “it’s perfect,” he said.
His grandfather served in Japan in 1948, helping with reconstruction after World War II. Preisler dove into research about where he served.
His interest in history was piqued by Cyndi Makos’ Advanced Placement Modern European History class at Port High, as well as his communications teacher Julie Grudzinski.
He applied to the Peace Corps – “I want to do my part,” he said – but his weight and the pandemic slowed the acceptance process.
That turned out to be a blessing. Preisler’s first choice of locations was Ukraine and his di lui second di lui was Armenia. He wasn’t scheduled to return until three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
He still wants to join, with AmeriCorps as a backup plan. His career goal of him is yet to be determined. Teaching or becoming a professor are possibilities. For now, he makes children happy at the Chocolate Chisel when they walk out with their treats.
Preisler still has to taste delectables at work. If a new ice cream flavor comes in, he has to be able to describe it to customers. He manages with moderation.
When he began work at the store last fall, it was his second stint – he worked there when he was at his heaviest weight in 2018. This time, he was already down to 235 pounds and was called “skeletal” by owner John Reichert.
“In all my life I’ve never had anybody tell me, ‘Austin, you need to put on weight,'” he said.
Preisler is as amazed at himself when he gets on the scale and sees 170.
“Wow, I can’t believe that used to read two-eight-one,” he said.
He is equally impressed by looking in the mirror every morning.
“I do actually have only one chin,” he said.
But it took more than one person to make it happen. Preisler isn’t one to say weight loss isn’t hard. Support from his family, friends, bosses, coworkers, former coworkers and teachers has been vital.
The self-made man stuff, he said, “is all falsehoods.”
Feeling better physically – he can climb stairs at the bluff without feeling like his heart is exploding out of his chest – has also had other benefits, including reducing depression and anxiety. He no longer worries about medical problems.
“Gosh darn it all, it just feels great,” he said.