Roza Gilles was a fashion model, a smoker, and a gym class dropout. Now, she’s the 2020 CrossFit National Champion from Uzbekistan.
As a young model during New York Fashion Week, Roza Gilles would wake up around 7 AM, drink a cup of coffee and review her 30 or so casting calls for the day. Then, she’d smoke hand-rolled cigarettes as she crisscrossed Manhattan, stopping to eat her first meal, a bodega sandwich, around 1 or 2 PM. Afterward, she’d hit more castings, runway shows, and after-parties. Around 10 PM, she’d soak up that night’s cocktails with a slice of pizza, her second and final meal, and go to bed around midnight.
For most of her 10 years as an international fashion model, this is how Gilles lived, but after discovering CrossFit, she devoted her life to fitness.
Growing up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, Gilles says that fitness wasn’t a priority, especially for girls.
- Though both her parents had been athletes, they didn’t encourage her or her sister to follow suit, and their school had no sports teams anyway.
- Gilles: “We barely had P.E. All the girls would gather together, and we’d run 10 laps around the track. But that would only take you five minutes, and then you’d sit around and talk.”
At the time, Gilles was happy to have a mostly free class period. She was a serious student in all her courses but English (“Looking back, that’s the only class I should have taken”) and graduated at 16 years old. That same year, a modeling scout came to Gilles’ school, liked her look, and offered her a job in Singapore. Since Gilles was already ahead of her peers academically, she figured she had nothing to lose by giving it a try.
Though she loved the work, Gilles says that the fashion industry is unhealthy for a few reasons:
- Because shoots can last all day, and models stay in each location for only a few months, it’s almost impossible to establish any routine, let alone a consistent diet or fitness regime.
- When clients hire a model, they expect that her measurements won’t change, meaning the emphasis is on maintaining your (petite) size.
- Gilles: “Having a gym membership, you might not ever go. But we’d run on the treadmill for an hour a day. I did that for five years, and it had nothing to do with health at all.”
Later, Gilles booked a job in Madison, Wisconsin. While in town, she and some coworkers tried a workout at Pat’s Gym, a HIIT studio a few hundred feet from Lake Monona, where the CrossFit Games’ swimming events would eventually be held. Afterward, the group debriefed over cigarettes and cocktails. They all hated it, except Gilles. She was hooked.
Gilles and a few model friends started personal training sessions at Pat’s and one day met the owner, who encouraged them to keep a food diary.
- Gilles: “We barely ate 1,000 calories a day, and he was like, ‘Oh my god, I don’t know how you live.’ And we went, ‘What? We look great, right? We’re models.’”
Since then, a lot has changed for Gilles. She married Pat, moved to Madison, quit smoking and drinking, and increased her daily caloric intake to around 3,500. She still models, but mostly for fun, especially because she’s too muscular for fashion clients and not muscular enough for fitness clients.
When her husband suggested that Gilles aim for Uzbekistan’s national championship, she jumped at it and since then, most of her free time has been devoted to training. In the Open, several of the workouts played to both her strengths and her weaknesses.
- She can deadlift 243 pounds, about twice her body weight, but isn’t yet comfortable with handstand push-ups, so she struggled on 20.3, the Diane redo.
- On 20.5, the choose-your-own-adventure, she did the 120 wall balls first (starting with 90 unbroken) and then tackled the row, but couldn’t complete a ring muscle-up.
She finished in 7,508th place worldwide and 100th for the national champions, but Gilles has doubled down on her training and has no shortage of goals for the Games, for which her parents are flying in from Tashkent. She’d like to handstand walk, snatch 135, clean and jerk 200, and make the first round of cuts.
- Gilles: “I’ve never done anything like this. Growing up, I never had the chance. I come from a very poor family, and I never thought I’d be able to travel—not just to America, but anywhere. I’m lucky to be here and so excited to be in the Games.”
Update: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Gilles placed 50,908th worldwide in the Open. This is how many points she received during the Open. The story has been updated to reflect this correction.
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