Roza Gilles transforms from teen model to CrossFit competitor

Roza Gilles can tell you the exact date her life changed.
Roza Gilles in front of Capitol
Photo by John Ficenec

Roza Gilles can tell you the exact date her life changed. She visited a gym that day and had to sign a waiver. Today, she has that waiver framed, along with the date, April 4, 2014.

Gilles, a native of Uzbekistan who turns 30 in August, was spending a few weeks in Madison working as a clothing model for Shopbop. After work, the models and photographers would often get together for a drink or a meal. On that April day, someone suggested a trip to Pat’s Gym at 931 E. Main St.

Gilles was not into fitness in 2014. She’d been modeling professionally since she was 16, blessed with a long, lean physique that resisted weight gain even when she wanted it. She smoked and drank. The gym to her meant treadmills, and those were boring.

At Pat’s, a trainer had the group moving quickly from station to station.

“I loved everything about the workout,” Gilles says. “It was really hard, but an hour felt like 10 minutes.”

Gilles returned, and kept coming back to Pat’s Gym when she was in Madison.

Roza Rilles on climbing pegs

Photo by John Ficenec

Conversations about nutrition with the gym’s owner, Pat Gilles, led to a friendship and, in June 2016, a marriage. Now fitness and Pat’s Gym have largely replaced modeling in Gilles’ life. That commitment was rewarded when she qualified, representing the central Asian country of Uzbekistan, for the 2020 Reebok CrossFit Games. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, this year’s CrossFit Games were canceled. The games would have been held July 29 through Aug. 2 at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, but instead they may be held as a virtual competition.

“I still plan on competing if it is online or at the CrossFit Ranch [in Aromas, California],” Gilles says. The only thing that would alter that is a date change, which might bring up other scheduling and training complications.

Truth is, she never really wanted to be a model — not at the beginning. Growing up in Uzbekistan’s capital of Tashkent, Gilles, then 16, was dragged by her older sister to an audition at an agency.

The camera loved her, and Gilles — who did well in school and wanted to go into medicine — figured a year or two of modeling would earn her money for college. She graduated from high school just before turning 16, having skipped two early grades because of high academic achievement. The age gap hampered her in sports — another reason she never saw herself as an athlete.

Gilles’ first modeling job — possible only after her father, a policeman, had vetted the agency — was in Singapore. The city-state has four official languages, including English, and Gilles spoke none of them.

“The job was great,” she says. “The hard part was being away from my parents. I’d call my mom, tell her everything was fine, and cover the phone and cry. I was a kid.”

Roza Gilles working out on the rings

Photo by John Ficenec

But her modeling career took off. At 18, a New York agency brought her to America, where Gilles went back and forth between New York City and Miami.

“You live out of a suitcase,” she says. “But the money was good.” She was able to send some home to help her family. She decided modeling might be a career after all.

Her first work for Shopbop in Madison came in late December 2013. Gilles arrived from Miami and thought, “Oh, my God. This is the coldest place I’ve ever been. I could never live here.”

It was a few months later that she first went to Pat’s Gym. She loved it but began losing weight. “The last thing I needed,” she says. Her trainer suggested she talk to the owner, Pat, about her diet.

She told Pat she ate whatever she felt like, but once he had her write it down, it came to 900 calories a day.

“Pat explained how unhealthy it was, and the smoking and drinking, too,” Gilles says. “I started drinking smoothies in the morning with super greens and organic wheatgrass. My lungs and hair got better. My skin tone came back.”

Roza Gilles with heavy barbell

Photo by John Ficenec

Her modeling agency felt she was getting too muscular, and Gilles faced a choice: Ease up at the gym or accept fewer modeling jobs. She went all-in at the gym — having moved to Madison in 2016 upon marrying Pat — where she now trains and does marketing and social media as well.

“I like believing in a cause,” Gilles says. “I’m helping people rather than making them want to buy a dress.”

She’s enjoying being a stepmom to Pat Gilles’ son and daughter, and she still takes the occasional modeling job when time and circumstances allow.

It was Pat Gilles and Greg Hammond, based in Vermont with Concept2 Indoor Rowing, who convinced Roza Gilles to try to qualify for the CrossFit Games. Hammond befriended the couple at the gym when the games first came to Madison.

“I wasn’t sure she’d want to train for it,” Hammond says. “But once she wrapped her head around it, she did,” adding that in 26 years in the fitness industry, he’s never seen anyone transform from model to top athlete like Gilles.

Although the games won’t happen in Madison this summer, Gilles plans to continue training. And if they don’t happen at all this year, she says she intends to keep training to ensure she qualifies for the competition in 2021.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.

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