SULLIVAN - Most days Ben Booker can be found working out in a small street-front gym along the courthouse square in Sullivan.
Exercise has taken on added importance in Booker's life and in recent months he has increased his workout routine to six days a week. After winning a contest in January and being scheduled to appear on the June cover of Iron Man magazine, Booker is hoping his dedication to fitness can be a way of making a living and supporting his family.
"I lifted to feel good about myself," said Booker, 29. "I just wanted to stay fit and healthy. Then I entered the contest and won it. It's crazy when I think about it."
Booker's journey began more than 10 years ago and it hasn't always been easy. Nearly two weeks into the football season during his senior year at Sullivan High School, Booker was injured in a car accident.
He had a broken back that forced him into two months of bed rest. For a young athlete, it was a devastating blow.
"I can only imagine how tough it was to be bedridden and read in the paper about how your buddies were winning basketball games or setting records on the track," said Derik Eaton, who at the time coached Booker in track and basketball. "We learn from things that happen in the past. I think if he's honest, that was tough."
Eaton is now teaching driver's education, health and physical education at Lovington High School.
The two men have stayed in touch over the years and have watched their relationship change.
"I used to coach him, and now there are certain days where he coaches me," Eaton said. "It's kind of hard to accept that at first."
Booker moved on after the accident, but drugs and alcohol were a part of his life. He became sober more than four years ago at age 24, and he has become dedicated to weightlifting and nutritional supplements.
"My intent was not to become a fitness model," Booker said. "When I first started this, I wanted to become a better person and help others."
Booker has inspired others he knows and who know his story.
At the age of 21, Tyler Graven has become focused on health and exercise thanks in large part to Booker's inspiration.
"He inspired me to start lifting," Graven said. "He got me going on it. He's been an inspiration for everyone here and in Sullivan."
Graven's dad, Doug, is the owner of G3 Health Club, where Booker works out. Attempting to be fit like Booker doesn't come easy, especially for somebody over 50, Doug Graven said.
"My mind thinks like I'm still 20," Doug Graven said. "I think I'd like to look like that."
Booker's newfound career could just be starting, Eaton said. He currently works for Booker Brothers Plumbing Heating & Electrical, which is owned by his father.
"I've seen him inspire younger kids in there," Eaton said. "I've seen him talk to older women. They go to Ben for that little pick me up if they need it that day. I don't know where his career is going to take him, but I think knowing Ben it's going to take him into a field where he's going to serve."
Booker has spoken to Eaton's students at Lovington High School.
"He had a profound effect on a lot of students up here," Eaton said. "That's hard. If you can change a 15-, 16-year-old kid with your words and examples, that's a gift that Ben has and it's invaluable."
Booker's dedication to fitness hasn't come without sacrifice, both for him and his family. He is married with two children, ages 2 and 4.
He is hoping to pass the same ideals he holds important on to his children as they get older. Their focus currently is on eating healthy, and exercise will become more of a component of their life later, Booker said.
He hasn't missed a day of working out since January 2009, meaning he gets only 52 days off a year now that he works out 6 days a week.
"If it weren't for my wife, I wouldn't be able to do it," Booker said. "You have to commit to it otherwise you won't get results. She wishes I had more time with the family. That's what she is sacrificing. But it's for something better with more opportunities."
Booker isn't sure where his recent success will lead him. Right now, it's just the beginning, he said. If the money's right, it could help go a long way.
"It's not enough to quit the job," Booker said. "It's a very, very tough business and I got lucky winning the contest. I do have that upper hand for a lot more exposure, opportunities."
Booker has landed an endorsement deal with nutritional supplement company Applied Nutriceuticals, something he hopes will open more doors.
The Gravens are doing whatever they can to help Booker out as he pursues the modeling business. Others have helped, too, including Booker's workout partner, Chester Reeder and John Rahn, who encouraged Booker to pursue the modeling contest.
"It's tough," Doug Graven said. "I'd like to see Ben be able to do it, make some money off of it. He's worked to get this way, and he's very humble. He doesn't walk around with his shirt off and say look at me."
Booker's influence has been an inspiration for other gym members, Doug Graven said.
"In Moultrie County and Central Illinois, it's a tough sell for health," Doug Graven said.
As a teacher, watching Booker is exactly what Eaton likes to see happen to his students.
"When Ben works out, he's intense, but he never hesitates to answer a question," Eaton said. "We might not see it right now, but there's no doubt Ben's planting a seed in a lot of young kids' lives. If he changes one kid's life, then what a better gift."