When Oksana Grishina announced onstage at the Arnold Sports Festival last March that she'd be retiring after the 2017 Olympia, the physique world gave a collective, "Say, what? At the height of her talents? In a sport where no one can touch her?"
Grishina had just earned her fourth consecutive Fitness International title, performing perhaps her most challenging routine, involving a Cyr wheel and Queen's "The Show Must Go On." Later, she said that when she was working on the performance, "I just knew it was time to leave the stage."
For more than a decade, Russian-born Grishina has been performing rings around the competition. She became the odds-on favorite to succeed all-time fitness champ Adela Garcia almost from the moment she hit the international scene. She was the IFBB Overall World Fitness champion in 2006 and joined the pro ranks the following year in time to finish seventh at her first Olympia. She ascended to the fitness throne in 2014 and hopes to leave the sport with four Olympia medals, matching her four moments in the spotlight with Fitness International promoter Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Grishina and her husband, Boris Ivanov, have moved around most of their lives. (They now live in Los Angeles.) At age 39, she says she's just beginning to write her story and has big plans for the future.
Your father was in the military. What was it like being an army brat in Russia?
We moved around a lot while my father served. It wasn't easy for me to change friends and schools all the time, but my family was always together, and we went through all the struggles and difficulties knowing we could depend on each other. I learned a lot from my parents about discipline and responsibility, especially how to stay positive no matter what.
You were also an elite athlete in rhythmic gymnastics. What attracted you to it?
It's a beautiful and elegant sport that includes everything in one—acrobatics, ballet, flexibility, and incredible coordination. I fell in love with it even though it wasn't really my kind of sport. I had different genetics from many of the other girls who were very skinny. I always had a muscular body, and even though I followed a strict diet, I couldn't change the way I was made. But I never gave up, and I got my Master of Sport faster than all my teammates, including many girls who had more potential than I did.
What was your favorite apparatus?
It's easier for me to say what was my least favorite apparatus! It was the ball and ribbon. If you lost control of the ball, it could take you the rest of your routine to retrieve it. And if the ribbon got tied in a knot as you waved it around, you'd have to stop and untie it before you could continue your routine.
How long between the end of your gymnastics career and your entry into fitness?
I finished gymnastics in 1996 and started fitness in 2002. All that time I was busy working as a choreographer in a school with kids and in a university with adults. My job included performing in the theater for the musicals "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera." I was also working as an aerobics instructor and personal coach.
How did you meet your husband?
We met in Russia at the opening of the first Albatross fitness gym in our small city, Kalingrad. I asked him to train me, and he has been my coach, nutritionist, best friend, and most enthusiastic supporter ever since. He knew all about the sport's history and closely followed U.S. pro bodybuilding. After he got his medical degree, he became a popular bodybuilding coach. Later, he managed Albatross clubs all across Russia.
When did you two decide to come to the United States, and why?
On my way to a pro card, I won the IFBB Overall Russian Championship, Europe Championship, and World Championship—all in 2006. I asked for a pro card, and in 2007, we moved to the States so I could try competing as a pro against all the other amazing athletes. It was a dream come true to share the stage with them.
You jumped right into the fire, moving to Southern California and then to Las Vegas. What was that like for you?
It was fun! We had no friends, no money, no jobs, no English, no family, and no place to stay. But I was happy. I was on my way to my dream, and I couldn't feel any pain or struggles.
It must have been quite a culture shock. What kept you going?
When you have to survive, you find ways to keep going. But not speaking English was the most difficult part—when you want to and should communicate, but you can't. But the United States was so welcoming, and most people were really nice and understanding. My first friend, [promoter, NPC/IBB official, and talent manager] Kenny Kassel, understood me without English, and I was so brokenhearted when he passed away in 2008. I did take English lessons, but I learned mostly from watching TV, speaking with people, and taking acting classes.
Your routines have evolved over the years. Your performance at the 2007 Olympia was fabulous, but not like the others—slower, with dramatic music and lots of dance moves. What kind of feedback did you get?
I remember 2007, when I got seventh place at my first Olympia, so well. I remember right after the contest, when we got to our hotel room, [photographer] Isaac Hinds texted Boris that I had won first place in the routine round. Oh my God, we acted like kids, screaming and jumping all over the room. What I learned was that if I just copied what others did—or listened to what others thought I should do—I would lose the most important things in my performance: my soul, my desire, my creation, myself.
You've talked about how challenging the routine that you performed at the Arnold was. Is the Cyr wheel the most difficult apparatus you've tackled?
The Cyr wheel comes from the circus and is getting very popular now in the fitness world. It was a huge challenge for me to learn it, since I didn't have much time between competitions. My Cyr wheel coach, Sam Tribble, told me I was a fast learner. It's fun to do, but it takes a lot of balance and concentration.
Will we see more of it at the 2017 Fitness Olympia?
Unfortunately, the Cyr wheel doesn't work well on carpet, water, or oil. The Arnold and Olympia stages are always carpeted, but I could still make that work. But all the oil we athletes use on our bodies made it very difficult. I'm very excited to bring my new and very special performance—without the Cyr wheel—to the 2017 Olympia stage.
You have said that your decision to retire was because you just knew it was time. I know people have been asking you this, but why was it time? Do you have a master plan?
So many people tell me it's not right that I'm saying goodbye now—that it will hurt my fan base and my contracts. But I'm not afraid of the changes and challenges to come. I want to give others an opportunity to reach their goals, and I'll be there to help them with it!
I also want to have kids and a home. I want to bring my family here to the United States, live a happy life together, and help them as much as they helped me when I was growing up!
Last year you promoted the OG Pole Fitness Classic in Los Angeles. What has the response been?
It was an amazing show and my first experience as a promoter! We had great guest performers from the circus, a special guest from Russia who performed on a flying pole, and special guests from the Arnold Classic team. I also was able to work with some great emcees. I screened a documentary about my first victory at the 2014 Arnold Classic. To top it all off, my family came from Russia for the show!
What are your plans for this year's OG Pole Fitness Classic?
My second OG Pole Fitness Classic will be at the Ferrigno Legacy Expo. 'll be presenting it with my good friend and fellow promoter Chris Minnes and his team. I'm stressed out about it, but it will be a great event.
After my 2014 pole fitness routine, I feel responsible for bringing the sport to a different level. If we want to call it a sport, performers should look like athletes. They should eat healthy and work out, not just on the pole, but with weights. That's why we're adding a special award this year for the best physique.
You just launched a new website, correct?
Yes, finally, we did it! OksanaFitness.com launched two months ago and has already had more than 30,000 visitors. We also have an online store we'll be launching this fall, which will offer a wide range of fitness apparel, gear, artwork, beauty, and accessories.
You even have a signature scent! How did Black Swan perfume come about?
My friends at the Mad Max company, based in the Czech Republic, presented me with this idea, and I had to choose one scent from 100 different testers they sent me. It took me two weeks to choose the right one! I want OG Black Swan perfume to be a scent of focus and concentration that gives people confidence and courage to be brave and to succeed!
We've also created OG Black Swan gloves and lifting belts with Swarovski crystal accents.
Have I missed anything? What about acting? Any desire to get into movies or TV?
Yes, I continue to study acting with Melissa Skoff. She helps me with my English as well, but it's my dream to get into a movie. I love acting. It's very tough, but so exciting.
What challenges you now?
To get ready for the 2017 Olympia and bring my best condition and an unforgettable performance from my heart.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I've always wanted to leave an impression in fitness so people would remember me in this sport. I want to represent possibility and the idea that you really can make what you want! It doesn't matter where you come from or the struggles and difficulties you've faced. It's all about believing in yourself, having a dream, loving what you do, and working hard.