“My knowledge and my history have to go somewhere. I can’t take it to the grave.”
At 44-years-old, Frances Manias has over twenty-five years of experience in the weightroom. She is someone who has always had a strong sense of self, and as such, has strived to find authenticity in herself and others her entire life.
France’s long journey in bodybuilding and powerlifting started at age fourteen while training for her first love, basketball. The school’s designated “girls gym” didn’t have weights, so the basketball coach took the players into the “boys gym”. “There was no real feeling of Aha! This is what I’ll do for the rest of my life,” Frances says, in a departure from today’s more common “lifting changed my life” narrative. “It was just part of being keen on playing basketball, and wanting to be better and stronger. That was the first touch.”
Throughout her High School years, Frances dreamed of making the Canadian National basketball team. She’d stopped growing at the age of twelve at just over five foot, a full foot under the average height of most players. “That made things a little more difficult,” she recalls. “It forced my path.” In prep for playing at the next level, she went into the weight room to get stronger, so she could advance.
Although Frances wasn’t recruited to play for a post-secondary school, she showed up on the first day of tryouts at her university as a walk on. Her grit and determination landed her a spot on the team after several grueling weeks, but ultimately she felt no lasting satisfaction from the accomplishment.
“I’d gotten to the point that I’d wanted to, but something didn’t feel quite right.” She attributes her decision to leave the team halfway through her freshman season to first-year “university angst”. “I was trying to figure everything out. I went through a phase where I was lost in the process of not knowing what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Although she transferred schools and left basketball, Frances still went back into the weightroom, this time training more intensely. “I had no real mentor,” she mentions, a fact that must inform her current and future goals for the Iron Sisters. A gym owner approached her and asked if she’d ever considered competing in bodybuilding. “I’d never even heard of it. The year was 1993. We didn’t have the internet. Bodybuilding wasn’t on TV or in the mainstream in any way, shape, or form. Being the young, naive athlete that I was, I agreed to the bodybuilding competition without fully realizing what it would involve.” She spent the next year prepping for her first show and got on stage in the summer of 1994. “That was my journey. I was no longer just going into the weightroom, I had found a path and a direction, and really fell in love with it.” She continued to get on stage every year thereafter for the next fourteen years.
“A lot of people get into [bodybuilding] now because they are looking for something, some kind of transformation.” It seems plausible that France’s earlier experience with basketball taught her that external validation and success doesn’t necessarily lead to internal fulfillment. She admits that she’s always felt self-actualized, defining herself by her own name and characteristics above comparison to others. “I never looked at my body in a mirror and thought that I needed to change. I never had any dysmorphia or eating disorder issues. There’s much that I don’t understand, but that I can relate to and learn from. People come to these pursuits in different ways.”
In 2008, a powerlifter that Frances followed on social media called her to ask for coaching her first bodybuilding show. “Our careers had paralleled with each other. We met and she wanted to start the bodybuilding journey. I said, ‘You know what, I’ve always wanted to do powerlifting.’ She told me she’d hold me to that!” Two years later, Frances got another phone call. “She said she had a bunch of gals doing a meet in six weeks, and that I should sign up. So, I did.”
Training for the meet fulfilled a longtime goal of lifting heavy, but Frances felt unnecessary animosity towards her from some competitors. “Coming to powerlifting, I was the “bad guy”. I was the bodybuilder coming over into powerlifting, and it was a big thing.”
In many ways, powerlifting is often upheld as a more noble or athletic sport. Bodybuilding can be viewed as vain, and more problematic than powerlifting. This in part because bodybuilding is aesthetics-driven, and in part because post-show weight gain and depression are common amongst those who enter the sport seeking a permanent transformation. Being stage lean isn’t sustainable 365 days of the year, and the inevitable weight gain can turn into a cycle of disordered patterns stemming from the belief that one must be a certain size to be of value.
“We have to have these experiences, and these dialogues. The pendulum has to swing. It’s important to recognize that we all bring bias and personal history to any sport. We’re going to learn from each other. There’s always something to learn from someone else.”
Frances has a passion to share not just her history, but the history of the women that came before her. After all, this generation is not the first of strong women to enter the weightroom. There’s a lot the past can teach us about the present. “That was one of the underlying factors behind why I wanted to create Iron Sisters. It opens up the possibilities of what we’re capable of. We’re growing in numbers, and we’re growing with regards to our strength capabilities.” Iron Sisters exists also to teach proficiency in movement. “We don’t just want women lifting, we want women lifting correctly.”
The model of Iron Sisters allows for a diverse group of women in strength to gather, and to learn from female mentors in real time. “I strongly believe that women can benefit with female coaching, female teaching, and female mentorship,” Frances says, “That is what will help us forge a path that is inclusive and empowering. It has to happen with women at the forefront, with women leading the movement.”
Frances is currently creating a new model for a 2018 strength camp. She has applied for a grant to allow girls aged 14 to 18 to attend a seminar for free. After, the girls will have the opportunity to be mentored by women that have completed the camp, with the hopes that they themselves will eventually grow into a mentorship roll. “The biggest waves and the biggest ripple effect will come from mentorship, and the relationships that we can build and we can foster.” She believes that pairing two women from different backgrounds will prove to be more dynamic and offer a greater learning experience for both participants. “What’s helped me is to have people in my life that I can have these deeper, more meaningful conversations with. They’re important conversations. If we look outside of ourselves for a little bit of time everyday, then I think we’ll lose that part of us that needs to feel like we’re not adequate, or we’re not measuring up, or we’re not as good as someone else.”
“My knowledge and my history have to go somewhere,” Frances believes. “I can’t take it to the grave.”
Frances knows firsthand what it’s like to overcome adversity, and the value of true friendship. In 2004, when she was on the cusp of turning thirty, she fell in love with a woman. At the time, she was married to a man who she affectionately refers to as her best friend at the time. “I really woke up one morning with this realization that something was not right,” and in true Frances-fashion, she knew she couldn’t ignore it or keep it to herself. “There was something else that I needed to explore and I needed to acknowledge. There was no real period where I can say, ‘I was in the closet because I was afraid, or due to fear.’ I wanted to be transparent.”
“I had to trust that there was another side. There was so much that I lost when I came out, but that was temporary.”
France’s transparency resulted in a devastating loss of work, family, and friends. “Coming out was a shitty time. Who would have dreamed that I would make it through?” She was baptized Greek Orthodox. Born again Christian at age six. Went to a Christian-reformed university that she ended up working at, until she was fired over her sexuality. “Apparently I signed a ‘code of conduct’ with relation to my ‘lifestyle’. I don’t know if they can even still do that today, it seems to be against my human rights.”
Frances’ traditional Greek family took issue with what was a departure from Orthodox values. “We’re a small family. I was not being perceived as ‘acceptable’. I lost my job, my church, my home, my family, and many friends.” She describes losing the privilege she once enjoyed as a “people pleaser,” a great athlete, in the student government, respected in the community. “I’d always had a strong sense of myself. I always did things because that’s ‘what Frances would do’, but I always wanted to please. So, to have people look at me and list all of the things that were wrong… then suddenly I was not pleasing anymore. I was just finding myself, my true self.
There was a handful of people that held me close, and I made it to the other side, thankfully.”
Still, it took Frances a long time to come to a place of real self acceptance again. “There was a period when I came out where I had to reconcile my faith with my ‘sexuality,’ as I articulated it then. I couldn’t say I was a ‘lesbian’… I struggled with that word back then, and I still do after all of these years. I’m Frances. This is just how I am.” When asked if she’s still religious, there’s a pause.
Frances says, “I was ultimately able to reach a place of understanding with my faith by aspiring to be loving.” Although she has a dense and rich knowledge of biblical dogma and theology, she knew far more about religion at the age of sixteen then she does now. “I knew more back then, and I was more certain of the defining pieces of my faith than I am today. Yet today I am far more empathetic. I am far more loving. I am far more of who I am meant to be. That, in the long run, is truly what it’s about.”
One of the qualities that makes Frances a special person is her ability to see, in her hardships, an opportunity to help others. Although she recognizes how far we have come as a society since 2004, she acknowledges there are still many challenges ahead. Unlike many of today’s homeless LGBTQ you, she was old enough to be self reliant when she came out. “I was able to feed myself, I was able to clothe myself, I was able to go get another job. I can only imagine what it’s like for younger folks. If they have a journey like that, it can be very difficult for them. We still need to do some work on that end. And I do, too. That’s another place that I think I can reach out. Some of the youth in my community.”
Frances considers herself lucky to have always felt as though she was living her life’s purpose, but age and experience has allowed her to come to a greater sense of peace with herself. “There is this wisdom,” she says, that comes with age. “I don’t have to try as much. I don’t have to strive as much. It’s a beautiful place to be. I don’t have to pretend. I just have to be, and I just am. And it’s cool. I listen more.” She references Steven Covey in saying, “I seek understanding, rather than trying to be understood.”
“It doesn’t mean that I’m not always looking for improvement, just like in the gym. But I am much more at peace, and much more in the present. Whether it’s in training, or in life, you should ‘enjoy the journey’. I haven’t hit a PR in 2 ½ years, but my PRs happen all the time in the context of life. It’s such that, everyday is a new day, and I have a new body, and so I’m going to enjoy it. I find that is a really awesome place to be.
Frances J. Manias BA, B.C.Ed., CSCS
Frances has lived, worked and volunteered in the community of Dundas, Ontario, Canada for the last fourteen years. Frances created her Dundas based business, Physique Coach, to help people change their bodies – through training and nutrition – so that they can look, and feel, and be better. Over the past two decades, she has taught, written, presented and coached in the strength, fitness and nutrition field.
Frances also founded Dundas Valley Power, a Canadian Powerlifting Union affiliated team that has had athletes compete at local, provincial, national and international competitions.
A lifelong athlete, Frances competed in drug-free bodybuilding for 15 years. As a five-time Canadian Champion, she represented Canada at the IFBB World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships seven times. Her most recent competitive endeavors are focused in powerlifting and include multiple provincial and national championship titles. Frances has represented Team Canada in 2 IPF World Championships, the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships and the North American Bench Press Championships.
Frances is currently championing Iron Sisters™, an organization dedicated to the education and motivation of women in strength sports. As Iron Sisters™ Founder and Chief Strength Advocate, and more recently through Iron Sisters USA’s Training Camps and Power Seminars, Frances continues to preach the unlimited bounds of strength development for women everywhere!