Interview with Tanya Vlahac

Tanya VlahacHello Tanya,
I am Angus Fox, Debi Purcell asked me to conduct an interview with you so we can let the world know whats been going on with you, and get us all the status of your injury. Let’s get started!
* Just for the record, though its not polite, can you tell us all how old you are?

(Laughing) I turn 48 on Dec. 18th. Angus, I’m laughing because when I was in my 30’s I looked like I was in my 40’s. I weighed over 200 pounds. Now, people are shocked when I tell them my age. It sometimes hurts me in business because people don’t realize my experience.

* Lets get a little background information on you. How to you start fighting mma?

I was living the corporate life in Montreal, my hometown. I had my bachelor’s degree and was working on my masters degree, eating crappy food, working long hours – but I had the “right” clothes!!

I met my coach, Pete Tremblay, when he was hired to work for the same company I was working for. He would talk to me about martial arts, and about health and fitness and it captivated me. He had a management style that I had never seen before. Being the stuck-up wanna-be academic, I was determined to “research” the sources of Pete’s management style.

So Pete and I ended up working on many of the same projects, because our areas of expertise were complementary. As we talked more, Pete started lending me martial arts books. He also suggested I go try some martial arts clubs, and I did try different clubs: aikido, boxing, and judo.

I started to change my lifestyle. But I changed it dramatically. Right around this time, my husband-to-be died of a heart attack at the age of 43. I quit my job, moved to another province, and became business partners with Pete and his wife, Sandy. We opened up a gym/martial arts school.

After training for seven years, I wanted to have one MMA fight.
Because of my age, I wasn’t thinking of fighting more than once. So, if I was going to fight only once, I wanted to fight the best. At that time, the best was Judy Neff. Judy and I fought in the IFC under Paul Smith, in Fresno, California in 2001. We were the only females on the card. The fans were unbelievably enthusiastic. I got hooked.

* What do you do to stay in such phenomenal shape? What is your training schedule like?

Thanks for saying “phenomenal” shape; that’s very nice of you.
Actually, it’s pretty easy for me right now to stay fit because I am part owner of Total Fitness, which, as I mentioned, is a gym/martial arts school. I can organize my training around the times I teach kids and do personal training sessions.

The one thing I will admit I am weird about is my eating. I follow a fanatical low-fat, high complex-carbohydrate, protein diet (I have to add “protein” because for some reason a lot of people assume I am a vegetarian – I guess because they see all the vegetables I eat.)

Just ask anyone who goes out to a restaurant with me – I special-order to the point they roll their eyes and try to pretend they don’t know me. I have one cheat day a week. That usually means I still eat clean, but I eat a LOT more than usual. I haven’t eaten butter for 12 years; I’ve eaten maybe 10 french fries in that time-twenty cookies. OK, maybe a piece of cheesecake or two. Weird, I admit it.

The rest of my lifestyle seems very normal, to me. Four days a week I train 45 minutes on weights (split routine: bench, squat, military press, stuff like that, nothing fancy).
I run 8 kilometers (5 miles) every day.
I train MMA 1-2 hours per day.
Pre-fight, that usually goes to 4 hours per day.
And, I try to get 9-10 hours of sleep.

* Recently, while training for the Hook and Shoot tournament, you suffered a pretty serious injury. Can you tell us what happened?

Hindsight is always 20/20 vision. The Monday before the Nov. 19th Hook n Shoot tournament, I really nailed one of my sparring partners. My arm felt funny, but no pain or anything. The evening after the weigh-in, Pete and I were having something to eat at one of the restaurants in Evansville, and the waitress said, “Nice arms, let’s see you flex.” I couldn’t flex my right biceps. The next morning, I went (actually, Pete dragged me) to the Deaconnes Trauma Centre where I saw an orthopedic surgeon who ordered an MRI.

My right biceps tendon was completely ruptured at the distal end. I had to have surgery, which took place here in Ottawa (10 long days after I got home – don’t get me started on the Canadian medical system). The surgeon drilled two holes in the bone in my forearm, placed two pins and secured my biceps tendon. He told me that the tendon was so shredded he had to pull it pretty tight before he could get healthy tissue, so it’s going to be hard at first for me to straighten my arm. But with good physiotherapy, it shouldn’t be a problem.

* How is your recovery coming?

It’s going very well. For the first three weeks, I will have to rest completely; the arm is immobilized in a half-cast. You should see it.
It’s completely atrophied, and just hangs there, like it belongs to some other person’s body.

Following three weeks of immobilization, I will be working on range-of motion exercises (“exercise” is a bit of a stretch, no pun intended. I’ll support my hand and move it up and down at the elbow joint. The fancy name is “passive resistance” exercise). That’ll last about eight weeks. Then load-bearing exercises.

In three months, I can train. Three to six months after that, I will be able to start training for a fight. (My coach is going to read this, so I had to quote the official line. The way I really feel is that this injury is rare and I believe these timelines apply to research using a bunch of old men, so how can anyone know what I will be able to do and when? But don’t tell my coach I said that!)

* As a fighter, I’m sure its incredibly difficult for you not to train, what are you doing to keep busy while recuperating?

You can say that again. I have been doing the stationary bike every day for 30 minutes – hard! I am not allowed to run outside (in the snow – might slip, they say). As of this week, I started bag work, but only using my left side. I attend all martial arts classes, and I’m visualizing like crazy.

Pete quotes a study that shows the best athletic performance comes from a 75% visualization, 25% physical practice, so I am encouraged by the value of visualization.

I still teach the kids martial arts classes, and some of the adult classes. For the more physical group fitness classes I usually teach, I do the parts I am allowed to do (like crunches, stretches) and call out the rest.

That’s how I’m keeping busy. It also takes me an eternity to floss my teeth with only one hand, put on deodorant, shave my legs, get dressed, open jars, and type on the computer. So that’s keeping me pretty busy, too!

* As a woman fighter, you face many unique challenges that many of your male counterparts do not.

The only “unique” challenge I am confronted with is that no one understands what I do. When I try to explain it, the response I usually get is, “Oh yeah, my six-year-old nephew does that, too! He’s a black belt in taekwondo (or karate).”

I don’t have tattoos, a shaved head and eyebrow piercings, dress in black, or ride a motorcycle. People assume that’s the deal if you’re a “fighter.” But I bet Rich Franklin gets that kind of reaction, too (NOT that I’m comparing myself in any way to someone of his athletic ability!!) so I don’t think it’s a uniquely female challenge.

I can’t think of a single other “challenge” that I face as a woman that a 135-pound man wouldn’t also face, including being taken seriously.

* How do you maintain the drive to be the best?

I try not to be a zero in anything. Keep my circle round, as my coach would say. In MMA, you work ground, and your stand-up gets weak. You focus on your stand-up, and your strength, say, declines. You hit the weights, and then all hell breaks loose at home or at work, because you’re spending too much time away at the gym. So I suppose the impetus to be the best comes from constantly working and re-working this balancing act.

* With Roxanne Modeferi’s impressive victories over Jen Howe, and Julie Kedzie winning the whole boat at hook and shoot, the landscape in womens mma is changing. What challenges still await Tanya Vlahac?

The women are getting younger and more technical, but I have the advantage of the mental game. Not to say you can’t be young and mentally tough. I’ve just been doing it longer, I’ve lived some life, and I have the advantage that comes with age and experiences. Fitness-wise, I can hold my own against most people, and I think my mental toughness makes me train harder than someone who takes their fitness for granted. The new fighters are technically amazing – but I still think fighting is 90% a mental game.

So to answer your question, what challenges still await me? Well, I’m not ready to stop fighting any time soon. I thought I was in the best shape of my life for Judy Neff. A month ago in Evansville, I KNOW I was in the best shape of my life, and technically better than ever. I want to see what I can do next time around. Exactly what event or which fight that will be, I don’t know, but I’ve just had something taken away that I always took for granted. When I’m back, it’ll be with a vengeance, because I will value the opportunities that come my way more than ever before.

* Who do you want to fight next?

I never got to fight Molly Helsel because of this injury. I like her attitude, and I respect her fire. I sat beside her Mom and brother at Hook n Shoot and they’re really good people. So I’d be willing to fight Molly some day. But I haven’t really thought about it much. Let’s see what happens next year, when I’m back in fighting shape.

* What fighters inspire you to train hard and do what you do?

Pete Tremblay, my coach. He doesn’t fight any more, but I’ve seen some of his fights from 25 years ago, and, man, they were crazy back then!!!! Of the pro fighters, you can guess I’d name this person: Randy Couture, for the sheer no-quit in him. Rich Franklin, for talent and brains and the self-effacing, and highly successful, disposition he showed as a coach on the T.U.F. television series. Females? Debi Purcell. Love her athletic talent, her unpretentious personality, the fact that she naturally and unabashedly promotes femininity as well as fighting ability, and for what she’s done as an advocate for women MMA fighters. I hope the women coming up realize how much Debi has done to pave the way for them, and I hope they show her the respect and recognition she deserves.

* Any advice for other women who are looking to start training nhb?

Stop limiting yourself with false ideas. Human beings have walked the earth for a few thousand years – if our bodies were that fragile, we wouldn’t have survived this long. Train hard, suck it up. If you have a coach who treats you differently than he or she treats the guys, find a new coach. Watch what the guys of your weight can do, and try to do it, too, to the very best of your ability. If you have your period, shut up. Just train. Wanna know how I really feel (smiling)?

* Thanks for a great interview. Anyone operating behind the curtain you want to thank? Any sponsers who have helped you become the fighter you are today?

Jeff Osborne from Hook n Shoot. Jeff is one of the classiest people I’ve had the privilege to meet (and you sure get to meet a lot of people in this business.) Jeff Osborne had the guts to do Revolution, Evolution, and the latest “first”, the Women’s Grand Prix, a tournament-style MMA event. He’s put a lot on the line to advance women MMA fighters.

Thank you, Angus, for your interest, and for asking all those great questions. It was a pleasure for me. My friends say I talk too much, so thank you for actually asking me to talk – instead of shutting me up!!
Big hello to you and all my friends in the States.
As you guys know, you can’t talk to a Canadian, “aye”, without hearing something about the weather: So I’ll give you an update. We’re looking at minus 20 degrees today, and expecting 12 inches of snow overnight. Hope you guys are nice and warm! Take care.

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