Ophelie Griffond, 31, is a VPT at Gymbox Farringdon and a body confidence coach. She shares with us what led her to join the circus at 8-years-old, and how she coped with several years rehabilitation from multiple surgeries to correct a birth defect. "I had to learn that you cannot always rush things, and that perseverance is essential. And most importantly, accept yourself, no matter what."
Hi Ophelie! You have an interesting background, tell us about when you joined a traveling circus at 8-years-old?
It all started when I was doing gymnastics at 4-years-old. I entered junior regionals at 6, and nationals at 10, earning my stripes until I turned 12. During a summer holiday my parents encouraged me to take up an activity, and the circus was one of them. With the poise I learned from my gymnastic competitions, and my skills in acrobatics, something got fired up within me. I instantly fell in love with the creative side of circus. I found it as hard as gymnastics, but a lot more fun! From then on I demanded my parents to help me to find a way to carry on doing it, which was quite challenging back then as the circus was not as fashionable as it is now.
Who encouraged you to get into gymnastics so young?
I always was a bit of a show off to be honest! I constantly forced my parents to watch me perform self-produced entertainment shows in our living room, fashioning costumes out of bin bags! I was also into all kinds of physical activity at school, so my teachers encouraged my parents to get me on some form of sports programme. I was not too keen on team sports, but was into the personal challenge, and I was into anything balance and flexibility related. This really was the start of it.
What are your fondest memories of this time?
There are so many! From travelling in real circus trailers and promoting the shows on the streets to the buzz from the crowd at the shows. Memories that really stick is learning about what the circus is really like, mainly the tremendous team work it took for all of us to put on a successful show. You have to support each other constantly, otherwise it just doesn't happen. You need to be fine-tuned to your partners. Visualisation is vital in every performance, which has now become a big part of my lifestyle. We also used to give each other head and shoulder massages throughout the shows to keep each other relaxed and quiet, which was bonding. Ultimately you learn to build a strong connection between the mind and body.
You were trained by artists from Cirque de Soleil, what makes them special?
So many things! But one thing is the way they say "again" about a hundred times a day, which pushes you beyond your own expectations –beyond pain, exhaustion and self doubt. This can get you to do a trick that you would never imagine being able to do. We would never question them. I rolled with it day in and day out because they are so inspiring to work with. My acrobatics teacher invented the first eight people pyramid for the Moscow circus, and was a lead acrobat in Barnum. He had a strong eye for logistics, technique, and motivational skills. He was fun yet managed to get us really disciplined through work hard. My trapeze teacher who toured with CDS had so much grace beaming down to her toenails. She had the best ideas in creating new acts. Some of you have probably seen a duo on one static trapeze, but she decided that three was even better! So we took on the challenge and did it.
You have had a tough time as a teenager going through multiple surgeries to correct a birth defect on your femur which impacted on furthering your career with CDS. How hard was this at the time to come to terms with?
Ugh! Just thinking about it again makes me feel frustrated. It was extremely difficult. Getting those surgeries done was in hope of making me better. But it didn't. I felt really cheated by the medical system. Having invasive surgeries will ultimately affect your career prospect as an artist/athlete. I was really disappointed and called it quits after my third knee dislocation, which also ended needing a surgery too. I then chose to keep performing as a hobby and started dancing, but always ended up as the chosen cover teacher, or the special skills coach when my PE teachers were bored. For me it was all or nothing at that time.
What did you learn from this period in your life?
It was a harsh reality to go through as a teenager. I had to learn that you cannot always rush things, and that perseverance is essential. And most importantly, accept yourself no matter what. You cannot always control everything the way you want to, so your happiness must come from within.
How has remaining in the fitness industry helped you, both physically and emotionally?
I started lifting at the age of 17 as I already considered becoming a PT back then. Coming from a rural area in France it got too difficult to join a PT programme, so I moved away to pursue it. However I soon realised that fitness was bringing another level to my performance. It complimented it. Integrating a fitness routine and designing programmes can improve your performance training drastically. Whether it is improving your stamina, strength or flexibility, it has enabled me to pursue new challenges. This brought my motivation back. Once you get started, and you see yourself achieving small milestones along the way, you soon realise that there is still so much more that you can do.
Impressive. Through these tough times, what (and who) helped you to stay positive?
I was bullied at school for missing time, and for caring more about my recovery than boys and fashion! I ended up fairly introvert emotionally. Apart from my parents not many people could really understand what was going through my head, although they witnessed the physical parts of it. However, my PE teacher kept telling my parents and I that it was not over, and that I will go back to it – one way or another. My dance teachers, choreographers and stage coaches also really believed in my talent. So somehow knowing that they could see this artist within me kept me going.
Looking back, what advice would you have said to your teenage self?
Listen to yourself and to follow your heart. It's easy to get knocked down, and life will do that to you, over and over again. It doesn't mean that it's over. You are still there, waking up every morning, so make every day count for yourself. Only you know what you want and what makes you happy. I would have tried to be a bit more confident and put myself forward for more things, such as trying to get that lead role in a show rather than be part of the ensemble. It's pointless to be scared about what might happen. You still move forward regardless, and that in itself is progress.
Any regrets that your training might have impacted on the development of your vertebral defect?
No point having regrets. This defect comes as a result of training from a young age. When you are being pushed and stretched heavily you use mostly the advantage of mobility. What I realise now is that instead of working on the stretch of the muscle fibre you put stress on your joints, and ultimately your body adapts. It really comes down to technique. You need people who know what they're doing when they train you, especially at such an intensive level. Such small details in breathing, positioning and tension can make a huge difference in the long term.
You say that now at 31 you're in the best shape of your life. How have you done this?
Again, it mostly comes down to listening to myself and to what my body says. There will be weeks I can pack up to 15 hours of intensive training (which I would never imagine I would do) and others where four hours will drain me. I take time to do things, and mostly enjoy it. I don't train if I'm not in the right mindset. It will not get you anywhere to force yourself, so always do what will make you feel good at the end of the session. Typically, I would try to train on the hoop about three hours a week, do about two hours of various cardiovascular training. I'd also lift weights for four hours a week – working on a split training system – and do calisthenics and bar work for two hours a week. I'd also put aside a minimum of four hours purely for stretching, myofascial release, and yoga. I would rather skip the weights than a good session of stretching. It's my favourite part of training because it just makes you feel so good – you never regret a good stretch. Training aerial hoop is also my form of therapy. Sometimes it takes me a bit of motivation to get on it, but once I get started and I get upside down and spin, all the troubles go away.
You're performing again, how is this impacting on your previous health issues?
I perform mostly on a freelance basis so I've taken a small break this year to focus on developing my PT career and work on my performance level. I'm a multi-skilled entertainer and a burlesque performer. I perform with fire, I do angle grinding, stilt walking, juggling and of course aerial hoop. I mostly work on creating acts that integrate my skills in a meaningful message. I am part of a small troupe called Bawdsville which are cabaret shows mixing theatre and burlesque. I may not be as bendy as a contortionist, but I've definitely been working on getting more flexible, which has taken longer than the average person due to the amount of scar tissue and tightness in my body. I need to work harder at it and be patient. But, I see the progress, and this doesn't stop me from getting hired for jobs, so I just keep going.
As a PT, when you see people struggle in reaching their fitness goals how do you help them to overcome their fears?
I use a bit of a mind game. I either put smaller steps in-between to break down a movement. I will try to find the closest regression, so you are closer than you expect. The other technique is that I don't tell them how much weight I put on a bar or a machine, and wait for their surprised reaction when they realise that they've been lifting a lot heavier than they believed they could. It gives a huge boost to their confidence.
You are also a body confidence coach, tell us about that?
I work with people in their own homes, helping them with their confidence. Being a burlesque artist you work on having stage presence and building your charisma. Usually we will go through some burlesque teachings such as walking, movement, posture and more. I will work on making them feel good about themselves in social situations, depending on what they struggle the most with. It's a lot of fun, and because it's in their own environment they feel comfortable letting go of their own inhibitions. There's a lot of psychology behind it, and I use it in my daily coaching as well with my clients within the gym.
And finally, what are your future goals?
I enjoy traveling, holistic lifestyle, life coaching and nutrition. I would love to find a way to blend all my experiences into a business. I have been looking at eventually creating fitness retreats, which is a big project. Being a creative person it's easy to get carried away! For now I have clients who have very specific goals, so I want to make sure that we reach them together, and for myself to get back on the performing scene. I think my life experience so far has taught me that things can change very quickly, so enjoy life and embrace the change. You may be surprised of what tomorrow can bring you.