This International Women’s Day, Stuff celebrates women in Aotearoa and raises awareness of gender inequities that exist across and within our social, economic, political and cultural lives. Fitness instructor Lisa Jurakovich, an aerobics champion and bench press record holder, has played a large part in many people’s physical and mental health journeys.
When Lisa Jurakovich started teaching fitness classes it was with a cassette tape in hand. Now it’s her laptop that’s essential. Something that hasn’t changed is the energy and excitement she delivers to her students whether in class or over Zoom.
Jurakovich teaches barre fit and retro dance fit classes at university recreation centres, keeping students and academic staff happy and healthy.
Retro dance fit “was called aerobics back then”, says Jurakovich, who won the New Zealand Aerobics Championship in 1987.
“These are the twilight years of my teaching career, but I’m going to finish on what I started with.”
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Jurakovich’s barre classes are influenced by her ballet training from the age of 5 to 18. “I love the music and I love the strict training about it and how disciplined you have to be.”
Over the past couple of years, she has been teaching her classes over Zoom. Not only did it keep her going through lockdown, but “for people that participated, it was one of the things that kept them getting through week after week”.
Jurakovich’s main aim is for her students to experience happiness and joy in her classes. “It’s not about losing 1 kilo or 2 kilos … I want them to leave class thinking, wow, that was so much fun, and I want to see them smile and, better still, I’d like to see them have a few laughs.
“That’s my outlet for me. That’s where I can go nutty and crazy, and so I really enjoy it,” she says. When Jurakovich needs to switch off, she hits the gym to train by herself.
At the 2015 Exercise Industry Awards, Jurakovich won the title of Own Choreography Instructor of the Year in Group Exercise. She is also the GPC (Global Powerlifting Committee) New Zealand under-52s record holder for an 85kg bench press.
“I didn’t exactly have a ballet body … so I just kind of moved into fitness after my ballet training,” she says, calling her benching career a “wonderful, unexpected journey”.
Jurakovich had always lifted weights at the gym, impressing people with her benches. After entering several competitions, it was suggested that she should bench more, some even teasing her about benching 80kg.
Despite thinking it was ridiculous at first, “Ballet training taught me this: practise something over and over again and get really good at it and that’s what happened with this. I just kept benching and got stronger and stronger, broke some records and got invited to the Arnold Classics.”
Seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger was a fitness highlight, Jurakovich says.
At the competition, she would get asked by large athletes what she was doing there, and they were always surprised when she’d tell them she was there for powerlifting. She’s amused by people’s reactions to her ability to be both strong and graceful. “My goodness, the human body can do so much more than we think it can.
“Young newcomers will walk into the barre class knowing that it’s a sort of ballet-type workout and I can see them looking me up and down, scratching their heads and going, ‘Is this barre class?’” she laughs. “I love it because I think it’s just going against the grain a little bit … I am short and muscular, but I can do ballet as well.”
She and her friend, Chris Olwage, performed comedy ballet and won the show dance category at the Kiwi Classic Dance Competition for each of the three years they competed.
“People would look at me and say, ‘Oh, she’s a bit muscly,’ and look at him and go ‘What the hell is he doing en pointe?’ And so we just want to mess with people’s heads a bit.”
Despite burning food and leaving the laundry out for a week, Jurakovich says her son and husband “support me in my mad, quirky ways”.
“I’m not the best housewife, but we have a good laugh,” she says cheerily. “I’m very lucky.”