​​Every year, Thrive Challenge participants share their inspiring stories of resilience, perseverance, connection, and joy. Samantha Watson is one of this year’s Thrive Challenge Grand Champs, and as her story shows, small changes can have a big impact on our lives — and the lives of others. Download the Thrive app to start your own Thrive Challenge. After 21 days of making better choices, share your story for a chance to win part of the $1 million prize pool! 

My two sisters and I were raised on a farm. We ate healthy food for the most part; everything was home-cooked. But in our family, the way you showed love wasn’t with fresh farm food, it was with food you couldn’t get at home, like nachos and SpaghettiOs. Later, junk food became the staple for me and my own family — fast food like McDonald’s and lots of candy. I’ve struggled with self-worth issues since my teens and I’d eat processed food to make me feel better because it still felt special.

I met my husband, Dan, at Walmart.

He has cerebral palsy and he’s on disability now — it’s been tough. We have three kids between us. Brandon is 19 and also works for Walmart. Lexi’s also 19, and William’s 10. During COVID, my grandfather, who I was caring for, passed away. I got super depressed and I was exhausted. I’d eat for comfort; I’d have a whole bag of ranch flavored chips and treat myself to T.V. dinners whenever I felt anxious.

One morning in July 2020, I woke up and I’d lost vision in my left eye. 

It was scary. I had an emergency appointment with an ophthalmologist, who sent me to a retina specialist. Then I had an MRI and I was referred to a neurologist who diagnosed me with multiple sclerosis. I started taking a medication called Copaxone. 

At that time I was also losing feeling and control in my left arm and leg.

It became difficult to do everyday tasks like driving a car or walking up steps, because my leg wasn’t following along with what I would tell it to do. I was afraid I’d become completely disabled and I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids. I’m 39, and my doctor said if I didn’t change the way I was living, my kids were going to end up having to take care of me. He told me I needed to focus on diet and exercise to decrease my stress, which could improve my condition.

My store manager, Tarah Voltin, told me about the Thrive Challenge. 

She also has MS and said Thrive had helped her take better care of her mental health. She really inspired me, and I got started in July of last year.

I began watching videos and reading articles about nutrition on the Thrive app.

I took simple Microsteps, like keeping a bottle of water with me at work to make sure I stayed hydrated. We eat more vegetables now and we’ve cut down on carbs. For dinner we love seafood stir fries and we’ve been really enjoying Thai recipes. We’re eating jackfruit and tofu instead of meat, and we’ll make lasagna with zucchini as a substitute for pasta. Brandon is doing a lot of cooking; he’s really into ramen bowls.

I started going for a short walk with a co-worker during my break.

That was all I could tolerate. Sometimes I’d just put my phone away and step outside for a few minutes to move and stretch.  

Dan and I joined Planet Fitness through Walmart.

I began walking slowly on the treadmill, nothing crazy, because I didn’t want to overstress my body. Over the months, I built muscle and the pain decreased. Every time I exercised, I’d check off my Microsteps on the app. 

Dan and I began going for walks and connecting with each other.

There are trees completely surrounding our house. There’s a stream and a waterfall and you can hear the water trickle. There’s lots of wildlife — oh my goodness, we have eagles, deer, and bears. It’s super peaceful. Dan’s my accountability buddy. If I’m feeling tired he says, “We’ve got to get our steps in.” Our walks became longer, moving became a habit, and I’d say, “What can I do next?” 

Amazingly, the vision in my left eye gradually came back.

There wasn’t a specific moment — it happened over about a six week period. I wondered if it was wishful thinking, but I started to be able to tell the difference between a flower or a bird on a tree at a distance. I could see individual leaves on the trees. And if I saw an animal crossing the road, I could tell if it was a cat or a mink, which I couldn’t do before. I had a follow-up appointment with the ophthalmologist, and when he redid my visual field test, he said my eyesight was coming back. I had one of those “Break Down and Cry, Thank God” moments.

I also got back full control of my arm and my leg.

I could gradually lift my feet properly going up steps. I was able to go walking through my own woods again on our property, without fear of tripping and falling. And now I can run around with my kids and take them to the beach without getting tired. Cooking used to be difficult because it was too hard to chop vegetables, but now I can grab carrots and cut them up easily. When I’m weeding the garden, I don’t accidentally pull up the wrong plant!

I’ve always loved being in the water.

I joined the Navy when I was 17 because of my love for the water — and to honor my dad who was a Navy veteran. I had stopped swimming, but now I’m back in the water again. There’s a lake near my house and I’m so happy because I’m snorkeling and diving again with the kids. I’d forgotten how amazing it feels to be in the cool water, floating without a care in the world. You can wash away all your anxiety.

We’re always out in the garden. 

We’re growing peas, green beans, squash, pumpkins, and all kinds of peppers. I’m growing vegetables that are new to me, like black tomatoes — they call them “black beauties.” I love feeling the cold, damp dirt on my hands, and the warm sun on my back while I work. It makes me nostalgic for my childhood on the farm. And it’s great because my kids help and they’re building a healthy relationship with food, eating what they grow. William loves peas and Brandon loves tomatoes.   

If I’m having a stressful moment or feel panicky, I watch a Reset.

It’ll take me to the jungle or the desert, or I’ll watch one telling me to raise my arms, stretch, and breathe. I’m also loving the Microstep about saying something positive to myself. I tell myself I’m worth it, and that I’m a good mom.  

At work, we have a Thrive support group. 

It’s inspiring to have cheerleaders. We have lunch together and swap recipes. A few weeks ago, Dan and the boys were out of town, and I was feeling lonely; I didn’t want to cook just for myself. So my friend Nekia invited me and our friend Cathy over to her house. And we cooked dinner together. I literally dug up potatoes and chili peppers from my garden and took them over. Nekia taught us how to make a seafood broil, and it turned out to be a wonderful girls’ night.

I may be pushing 40, but I don’t feel 40. 

I’m more content and I have less pain and less stress. Dan and I are almost the same age, and we say to each other, “Life begins at 40.”