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Always up for a challenge

Raceview’s Olia Voronkova is the true image of ‘challenge accepted’. As a young girl from Russia, she braved the US, where she met the love her life. We chat with Olia about motherhood, business and her six years in South Africa.

She never knew that when she arrived in the US to work at a summer camp, her journey will bring her to South Africa.

At the age of 19, she set off to work at a summer camp in New York, where she met Konrad, who came all the way from South Africa.

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‘We fell in love. One can truly say it was love at first sight. We went through the long-distance relationship and a break-up that lasted six years. After graduating from my university, I moved to New York, then Colorado, then Los Angeles and at that point, we decided to give it another try.

‘Konrad visited me in LA. I took him to Las Vegas and we celebrated New Year’s in Big Bear in the snow. I then visited him here in Johannesburg and we travelled to Mozambique, Mauritius and Cape Town.

‘It all felt like we never said good-bye those long six years ago, so we decided to give it another try. Konrad sold everything and moved in with me in Los Angeles. We stayed there for about two years, then I fell pregnant and we decided to move here, closer to his family.’

But not only did the long journey bring her to her new home, it also brought her to a place where she started a business in doing something she loves.

For Olia, the past six years has been challenging but also exciting.

‘I worked corporate for two years, but it wasn’t my thing. I then studied and started teaching Pilates, the type of Pilates I fell in love with in LA. It is hard core, large equipment Pilates that makes your heart race, makes you sweat and makes even your nerves tremble.

‘I studied with second-generation master Pilates instructor Natasha Madel, who studied with one of the first disciples of Joseph Pilates – Romana.

‘And here I am. Teaching Pilates full-time to my clients at a fully equipped boutique studio in Mulbarton.’

Finding her niche

‘You know, I always loved fitness and having a healthy lifestyle. When I was 12, I used all my pocket money to buy this book that promised to help me ‘grow an extra 5cm. I’ve always been a shorty, so it bugged me a lot back in the day.

‘I don’t know if those exercises actually helped, but since then I jumped on the fitness wagon and never stopped.

‘A few years back, I read that because of the obesity pandemic, children of today will be the first generation of children to not outlive their parents. It broke my heart. It’s up to us to change it. I want to show women they can lead a healthy life and show them how easy it is.

‘We are our children’s role models, so if we are healthy, strong and independent, our children will want to be like us or even better.’

This all lead to her studying and getting new skills. Today, she is one of only 30 classical Pilates instructors in South Africa.

‘I want to be the best in what I do, so I’m training for my master trainer certification with the International Sports Sciences Association.’

Once done, she will be able to do personal training, health and nutrition, as well as lifespan coaching, exercise therapy, performance enhancement, glute coaching … to which she had to say: ‘Who doesn’t want a perky peach butt? I certainly do.’

All in a day’s work

When asked about her daily routine, challenges and best part of her job, her face lights up and she is quick with her answers.

‘LOL, I think that even after two years in this business, waking up at 4am remains my biggest challenge, especially as it becomes colder and darker, and yes, it is cold even for a Russian.

‘But if we talk seriously, you know I have people coming to me with various issues like a back injury, knee injury, joint pain or mental problems. I wish I could just give them that magic pill that would eliminate their pain right away, but unfortunately, that pill doesn’t exist. It’s a journey and we need to be patient, be consistent. It might take a couple of months, it might take a year, but if we put our minds to it, we can achieve it and live a pain-free, healthy life.’

She describes her best moments as those when a client comes back to say, ‘Oli, my pain is gone. You are awesome. Thank you so much.

‘But you know, it’s not me, it’s them. It’s their consistency, their dedication and their body. Your body is amazing. It can do so much more than you can imagine.

‘Their words mean the world to me. They prove to me that I’m doing something important, something life-changing.’

Side hustles

Olia and her partner, Roxanne, started Greenolicious, an online directory for small local businesses that later got another branch – a Health Cafe.

But it happened during lockdown and they decided to focus online and now run greenolicious.com.

‘We want to bring to our people here in the South affordable health foods. Pure and real that does not cost an arm and leg.

‘Here, we teach about how living healthy is actually much more affordable that living unhealthy.

‘I have another side hustle called BecomeMedia.co.za – a web design and brand-building agency.

‘I help small business owners build a website and teach them how to manage it, help them put together their social media accounts, campaigns.’

Mummy duty

‘I work from 6am and finish around 2pm, and then I’m on mummy-duty. I’m really blessed to be able to make my own schedule and spend more time with our little one, who goes to an Afrikaans primary school.’

Being a vegan, the evening dinners are healthy and includes veggies, grains and legumes.

‘When my hubby comes home from work, being a proper South African, he braais and then we have dinner. This is also the time when we laugh together and talk about the day, new challenges and opportunities.

‘To me, being a mum means to give our girl all the love, support and care we can, and teach her she can achieve anything she sets her mind on.

‘Being so far away from Russia, it’s especially important to pass on the greatness of my Russian heritage – our rich culture, Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mendeleev, Aivazovsky, our language, our music, our literature, art, science, the bravest hearts of our soldiers that gave their lives for our freedom and saved the world from the greatest evil, for our peaceful sky above our heads. To teach her that honesty, kindness, solidarity, tolerance and justice should be our North Star.

On a personal note

Olia grew up in a small town on the Volga River in Russia called Togliatti. Both her parents are retired and still live in her hometown, as does her older brother, Igor.

‘My mum used to be a principal at two schools and my dad was a musician. He plays saxophone. But after the massive economic crisis in the early 90s when the Soviet Union collapsed, he gave up his passion and started working for an automobile plant to provide for us.

‘The 90s were challenging for my parents. They had to sell so many things, including their wedding bands, to buy food and pay for necessities.

‘I remember my mum used to tell me about that ugly green coat she wore. It was so old, worn out, dirt cheap and she was so embarrassed of it that she would be the first one at the school, where she worked as a teacher, and the last one to leave just so that no one would see it.

‘I think those struggles made my parents who they are. Strong, gentle, humble and kind. My mum is a respected woman in my hometown. She has three bachelor degrees and was awarded an honorary title, Honored Teacher of the Russian Federation.

‘I’m blessed to have such an amazing family, and I miss them a lot.’

About this and that

Reading, especially when everyone is sleeping, and gardening are leisure time favourites for Olia.

‘My hubby is building me a greenhouse. You know, Russians are farmers at heart. We love growing our own veggies, herbs, berries. I really want us to be as self-sufficient as we can.’

And when it comes to things to do and places she likes to visit, you soon realise the great outdoors is always calling.

She loves Rietvlei for a Saturday morning run or mountain biking, Bass Lake for some swimming in clear water, 4×4-ing on the open grounds next to Swartkoppies or cruising in the boat on the Vaal River.

Off the cuff:

  • Do you prefer food, travel or art?

Travel. Tom Kimmel said: ‘We rest while we can, but we hear the ocean calling in our dreams, and we know by the morning the wind will fill our sails to test the seas. The calm is on the water and part of us would linger by the shore for the ships are safe in harbour, but that’s not what ships are made for.’

  • Rain vs sunshine

Sunshine through rainy clouds

  • City life vs outdoors

Outdoors – beach, ocean, mountains

  • Your ultimate spoil

Camping by the ocean, waking up to the sound and the smell of the ocean

  • Your guilty pleasure

A little bag of sweet chilli Doritos with a Hunter’s or Savanna cider

  • Your pet-peeves

Double-dipping. Please don’t bite your carrot and re-dip it into my hummus.

  • Your best movie ever

Back to the Future

  • On your playlist

Unstoppable by Sia and Stick Figure, Kygo

  • The one thing nobody or very few people know about you?

From the ages of 14 to 19, I decided to become normal and started eating meat. I wanted to be like my friends and stopped being a weirdo. I wasn’t too impressed with myself, how it made me feel and went back to being who I was – a vegetarian weirdo LOL.

  • Wardrobe must-haves

Blue jeans and white T-shirts

  • Your motto

If you choose to be something, be the best at it and never stop learning or you will start dying

  • If you could do one thing before you die, what would that be?

One thing? It’s so hard! Can I choose three? Climb Everest, visit Antarctica and see the Northern Lights.

* Text: CARINA VAN DER WALT. Photo: ELZAAN PIENAAR

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