Getting to know… Mary Vlahos of Strong Coach Mary

CrossFit Agilis, experienced trainers Matt Williams and Shaun Diachkoff, and I are delighted to announce we have designed a 6-week “Get Strong” fitness program in Rozelle for people wanting to transform themselves into the best version of themselves – mentally and physically.
Tell us about yourself
I’m 43, a mother of 3 kids and wife to George. I live in Balmain, and grew up in the area so I feel that Balmain is my stomping ground. Prior to kids, I did a civil engineering degree and worked in the corporate world as a consultant, later starting my own recruitment business for engineers. I went on to have Eleni and Mia and by my third child Christiana, my mum became unwell with cancer.
I was trying to manage being her support with her chemotherapy as well as run my business with 3 kids and in the end something had to give and I decided to let go of my business. I became a full time mum and carer for my mum. Around this time I started helping George with admin for his commercial refrigeration and air conditioning business.
Unfortunately I lost mum and I developed a debilitating level of anxiety and generalised depression. I started losing myself and to numb the pain I put myself last. I was drinking and eating whatever I wanted and honestly was a bit out of control. My kids became my first priority and as that can be demanding, I lost myself there and with helping to grow my husband’s business.
Because I was an Engineer and a ‘go-getter’ we always had a development project on the go as well as running our business. At one point I was working to 12am-2am to get DA processes through which contributed to me being last on the list as I deemed everything else to be way more important.
Tell us about how the Strong Coach Mary program came to be
My very own fitness journey has inspired an audience of thousands as I morphed from unfit mother of three to a portrait of power and an advocate for strength and fitness. I am so in love with this sport and I want to make it my work to help others.
I walked into CrossFit Agilis where I train in Balmain one day and told them that I’d like to work here and would they consider it? I studied and gained a certificate in Crossfit and Weightlifting. They mentored me and I have a coach working day-to-day with me on fine-tuning my coaching technique and skills. We built the program together and rolled it out 2 weeks ago!
What does your program include?
We offer either a 6 or 12-week program, which includes CrossFit fundamental or beginner classes for 3 sessions per week. I also guide you on nutrition, which encompasses eating “good clean” food and is designed to be sustainable beyond the 6-12 weeks. We also focus on mindset to help you change the way you think, which is the first step in your journey. We will assess your current situation and try to understand what your obstacles are, so it becomes a personalised program. We work together to set goals and manage any obstacles that may come up. I will guide and inspire you and in the program you will be able to bounce ideas and thoughts with like-minded people in a closed Facebook group. The group is there so you can ask questions, share successes, ask for support and have some fun.
Who is your program suited to?
The sessions are at 11am (and include a crèche!) so they are tailored to mums or women/men who just need a little push to transform to a better self. If you are feeling a bit lost and are afraid of a big intimidating gym, you’ll find CrossFit nurturing with a beautiful community feel that you would never understand unless you walked in the door. You end up feeling like part of the family. The intimidation of wheels and barbells is scary I’ll admit, particularly when you see people throwing them across the room, but that’s when I realised that everything is scalable. It is so effective but you have to have the guts to pick it up. Put the fear aside, leave your ego at the door, and any fear you had will dissipate.
What benefits can someone expect from your program?
A healthy outlook and I will give you the tools to change your mindset from ”’I can’t” to “I can” which will have a flow on effect to every other area of your life. You will see some initial weight loss and tone, and will start to notice better skin and hair and you will start glowing as well as sleeping better and a clearer mind. Endorphins and serotonin change everything including any previous bad habits, to make you feel amazing!
The idea of CrossFit can be scary, how would someone overcome that fear?
Walk through the door and trust the process because all movements are scalable. At first you will be walked through the functional movements, which form the basis for all other movements. We currently have a 40-year old mum in the gym that is lifting 60kgs above her head, and she’ll tell you that she used a broomstick for the first 3 months.
There is a whole community of Balmain mums that is representative of our community. The people you see at Bertoni are the people you see in CrossFit. There are high levels of respect and there is an equal balance of women to men.
What prompted you to start to put yourself first?
We went on a family holiday in 2015 to Italy and Greece and had a ball but I over indulged. When we got back I saw a photo of myself in a bikini, bawled my eyes out and became anxious as I had reached my heaviest weight at 110kgs. My back and knees were hurting but having been really fit in the past, I remembered the feeling and knew I wanted that again. That was November 2015 and I promised myself that I would make a change and set the date of 5 January 2016. One of my cousins suggested CrossFit but I also knew how demanding it was and the images of barbells and people dead lifting made it seem incredibly intimidating.
When a car spot was free outside of CrossFit Agilis one day, I walked in and became intrigued. It was like a secret underground world. That was the magical day I crossed over and started healing myself.
 Besides fitness, what other lifestyle changes did you make to shed an impressive 27kgs?
I decided to stop drinking which was a massive change to my lifestyle. I used to be an extreme socialiser and if there was a party or social gathering I was there! I decided to step away from it all and initially it was hard to sit there and have a soda vs. being the instigator of drinking but I was really committed to getting fit and healthy. My diet was always good but I cut out sugar and alcohol.
Something changed in my head and I became so determined and built this great power out of my feelings of loss and fear. I built a will of determination. The more I went the hungrier I was; I was tenacious and unstoppable. I set some goals and I was going to meet them. When I touched those barbells and started lifting weights, I had no idea I was going to get strong and toned and 15kgs just melted off.
I imagine there would have been quite a mindset shift too – what were you telling yourself then vs. now?
I was always really confident and a go getter with life though after mum passed away, I lost faith in myself and went from an “I can” to an “I can’t”. When suffering from anxiety there is a lot of fear that keeps you negative.
At CrossFit, I aligned myself with like-minded people who were positive, strong, fit, committed, and suddenly that is rubbing off. When I can’t do something, I can transform it and prove to myself that I can do it. I started to rebuild myself that way.
The person I used to be started to come back and I was kinder to myself, and my relationship with my husband improved. Suddenly I am looking stronger and healthier and I started to see a counsellor and asked for help. I aligned myself with someone who knew about food addictions and I started to protect myself by saying no, and using certain techniques that helped including going to bed at 9:30-10pm so I was fresh for the gym in the morning. That’s how I built my mental strength. I started to love it and doing something that you love is important and CrossFit became my world.
Strong feels so good and there is no way I want to be skinny; I had this shift of wanting to be a size 8 or 10 and realised there is no way that I can be. All CrossFitters are strong not skinny and I love this toned body. I lost 27kgs but I’m still dropping dress sizes. Weight means nothing and I threw the scales away. Strong is the new skinny and I track my progress only with a tape measure.
How did it come about that you are being painted for an Archibald submission?
I fell in love with Marie Peter Toltz paintings 10 years ago and bought some lovely art at an exhibition I was lucky to attend. We got on well and I was heavier at the time. We recently reconnected on Facebook and I started posting my achievements in the gym and she was watching this. Marie had an exhibition in January, by which point I had lost 4 dress sizes. She was amazed at my transformation and the next day we had a coffee and she told me she would like me to be her muse for her next series. I did a photo shoot and she decided to paint me for the Archibald! She calls me Artemis yet I call myself Strong Coach Mary because at the same time I was developing the transformation program for mums.
Where do you draw inspiration?
My mum; she was such a strong woman and when I think I can’t, I know I can because of what she went through. The people in the gym; the strong amazing women I surround myself with each day and of course my coaches who keep me accountable and believing in myself.
Favourite spots in Sydney’s Inner West?
Ballast Point – what a magical place to sit and I love the whole mad max feel. My favourite park would be Balmain East where you can stare at the harbour bridge. And Bertoni!
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