Written by Kathryn Lekas, Editor-in-Chief
Photography by Paul Buceta
Hair & Makeup by Monica Kalra

One look at Tijana’s showcase of strength and positivity, and it’s easy to assume fitness has always served as her foundation for a healthy, vibrant life. But Tijana’s reality is actually quite the opposite. “I was inactive as a child and got bullied for my weight,” explains Tijana, who sat out of gym class, and then got into partying when she was only 13. 

“I always had mental health issues, since I was 12 years old, as a result of some family things… My parental relationships. I was an only child and a very anxious child, and that led to being overweight, which then snowballed into more harmful destructive behaviors,” she explains. “I used to mask the negative feelings with food—binging and coping through food. Then it was onto drugs and alcohol, rather than having to face the mental health issues head on. I went to raves at 14 and turned to drinking and partying,” says Tijana. “It’s really been a journey of about twenty years, this push and pull between a healthy life anchored in fitness and one filled with destructive behaviors.” 

Tijana did her first diet at age 12. And in her late teens, desperately wanting to be skinny, she resorted to the only approach she knew to lose weight—eat very little and do a lot of cardio. A combo she knows now, as an experienced fitness professional, to be a killer for mental and physical health. “I just didn’t know another way back then,” explains Tijana, “I would do all the high intensity classes at the gym. Whatever burned the most calories, those were the classes I would pick,” she says, “and it worked—I lost a lot of weight.” So much though that she also lost her period. And experienced severe brain fog. But the pseudo-success was enough to convince Tijana that fitness might be the career for her. 

“At that time, I felt like because I had lost a lot of weight putting so much into doing the intense cardio and boot camps, that meant I was passionate about being ‘fit.’ I was uneducated and ignorant about the science behind physical and mental well-being,” she admits. “I thought fitness was all about cardio, and that weight lifting was for men.” As Tijana pursued fitness as a career in college, a whole new world opened up when she discovered a love for lifting. “I started learning about weights in my early twenties as part of my school program and I realized how much more weight training gives you. So I started to focus on gaining and building to feel good, rather than losing to look a certain way. I really loved how it made me feel… But I always seemed to get pulled back into partying habits despite that, so juggling both just became the norm for me,” she says.

Tijana didn’t quite know what her future would shape up to be, but since she felt she was on the right track with fitness she decided to also get her certification in holistic nutrition while growing her client base organically, starting on the gym floor as most personal trainers do, then moving to working with clients in their homes. “I was very busy doing in-person, training up to 10 clients a day, which was great… But I was really burning out from the demand, and my husband was doing the same. Then we were both going between stacked client days and caring for our child when we became parents. I knew something had to give,” she explains. So, Tijana looked for other ways to pursue her newfound passion in a more efficient way, using apps online.

Always a believer that even coaches need coaches, Tijana also signed up to Team STRONG Girls as a client in 2017 to elevate her own fitness. Under the guidance of STRONG’s Coach JVB, she fell in love with the process. “Coaching online really gelled for me. It was wonderful having support without having to be directly beside someone in order to meet fitness goals,” says Tijana. In fact, the process resonated with her so much that she toyed with the idea of becoming a STRONG Girls coach herself. “We had a similar target niche, helping active women get in photoshoot shape, working with women who wanted to really level up,” she says.

The right time to join the coaching team presented itself in the summer of 2020. “I had my second child at the beginning of that year, and then the pandemic hit, so between trying to coach clients with a new baby and navigating the challenges presented by COVID-19, it made sense to work and grow together with a shared vision,” says Tijana, who feels life as a Team STRONG Girls Franchisee offers the best of both worlds so to speak. “Working together allows me to still maintain autonomy with my clients but enjoy the added resources and support that comes with being part of an established group. We can all do more this way; reach more people and have a greater impact,” she says.

Expanding her business prompted Tijana to make some significant personal shifts, too. “I don’t take this role lightly, being a body transformation coach, because you actually become a really big part of people’s lives. In the process of helping them change their bodies, you also serve as a role model for healthy living, and often become a confidant for them,” she says. Which is why Tijana is especially happy to share that she’s been sober since January 1st, 2022. “I was always growing as an athlete and a coach and drinking wasn’t in alignment with my goals, or future self who is focused on a strong lifestyle. I had to tell myself, ‘This isn’t you—you can’t show up like this.’ I’m a big believer in integrity and I just knew I could no longer have one foot in and one foot out. I had to commit to the lifestyle I wanted and give up behaviors that didn’t serve me or the healthy lifestyle I was promoting through coaching. I felt like a fraud, trying to just not talk about the partying part of myself. I really didn’t want to be inauthentic,” she admits.

Tijana says although the decision to give up alcohol was easy, the process was anything but. “My sobriety is really my biggest accomplishment,” she says. “I wanted it, but I had to really be ready to go through the discomfort. I knew I was going to be sore, maybe embarrassed, and there is that period where you wonder if you can really do it. Every time I had a milestone to ‘celebrate’ I wouldn’t know if I’d be able to make it through without alcohol. When you’re mentally ready to have the tough period, though, you just go through it. I only wish I had the courage to go through the discomfort earlier.”

Nonetheless, Tijana is happily enjoying the benefits of trading drinking for the dopamine hits she gets from fitness. “It’s making me stronger mentally and taking me closer to my goals each day.” At the halfway mark for the year, she’s evaluating her goals for 2023: “I have some aesthetic goals—it  feels like a never ending journey to build my glutes! And I’m working on building my legs. More importantly, though, I have performance ones. I want to get up to deadlifting twice my bodyweight, so about 270 pounds, that would be great. Also, to do a 50 pound pull up. My ultimate goal is to be fit for life.”

“I’ve been the person struggling. I’ve been the student learning, the client changing, and the coach evolving. After getting sober, I finally feel like all areas of my life are aligned with the person I am, and who I want to become.”

Measuring her success through photoshoots is something Tijana likes to do. “Looking at NSV’s (non-scale victories) is one of the values we maintain with Team STRONG Girls. We try to focus on what you’re gaining in the process of a body transformation, rather than ‘how much you’re losing’. It’s okay to want to lose weight, but we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. There are so many markers along the way aside from the number on the scale, and photoshoots are a great way to check in. Whether your goal is to lose weight or not. You get to celebrate your progress, and it’s really just you versus you.” And Tijana finally feels like she’s really won. 

“The STRONG cover shoot has brought me full circle,” she says. “For two decades I’ve been working to align the idea of the life I want with the one I’m living. I’ve been the person struggling. I’ve been the student learning, the client changing, and the coach evolving. After getting sober, I finally feel like all areas of my life are aligned with the person I am, and who I want to become—for myself, the women I work with, and especially my kids. Being a mom of boys and having grown up with diet culture, I always think of them seeing a woman lifting weights and normalizing that women aren’t supposed to be small. Learning that it’s good for women to be strong, have muscles, be a business owner, and break down barriers."

Tijana hopes sharing her story candidly will help other women remember that success is a journey. “Ten years ago I was doing only cardio, having coffee, smoking cigarettes, sleeping until noon, and I would get injured so much more easily, I felt so much older then. I think about this a lot. I never take for granted that I feel younger now at 32 than I did at 22.

Taking small steps add up to big changes. If I—the least athletic person in my entire school growing up—could change my habits and behaviors to lead a healthy, strong life, and even inspire and help others to do the same, anyone can.”

STRONG Fitness
STRONG Fitness Magazine is a trusted source of cutting-edge fitness and health information for the modern woman who lives to be fit. STRONG’s sophisticated editorial voice combined with raw, powerful imagery and a modern, athletic design reflect the direction fitness has taken in the last decade.