Olympic wrestler brings high-performance attitude to Brainsport

Eight years after retiring from freestyle wrestling, Saskatoon’s Jillian Gallays is finally feeling retired.

Gallays, a standout at the University of Saskatchewan Huskies wrestling team, was a member of the Canadian National Wrestling Team since 2006 and competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished 19th. She retired after the Games and started working as a strength and conditioning coach at Craven SPORT Services. The work was so close to the world she lived in as an elite athlete that she never really felt like she’d left wrestling.

Earlier this year, Gallays decided it was time to shake things up. She left her job at Craven this spring, opened her own strength and conditioning centre — also called Jillian Gallays — and took a part-time job at Brainsport selling running shoes.

This week, Gallays talks about her career transition, what makes a wrestler good at selling running shoes and her mindset as she prepares for another year of watching the Olympics from home.

Q: Tell me about life after you retired from freestyle wrestling.

A: It was easy in a way because I went from wrestling into a workplace that I was familiar with. I went from something that was so high performance into a job that was still in the high performance world.

I finally feel like I’m retired now that I’ve left that job that was familiar. The last little while has been really challenging for me because I now have truly accepted that I retired from wrestling which is crazy to say because it’s been eight years.

But I will always miss wrestling. Wrestling was such an amazing, cool experience to be a part of. I really liked the culture and the people and my teammates that were in the sport with me.

Q: Why were you looking to do something new this year?

A: I was just ready for a change. I felt a little stuck and I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my job was so related to my wrestling that I still didn’t feel actually retired. Another big reason to step out of my comfort zone is that when my best friend and training partner Natasha Fox died last year it really just spiralled me into acknowledging that change was needed. Natasha always believed that I could do anything. To honour her memory and keep her inspiration alive in the world I felt like I needed to try to do my own thing and see what comes my way.

Q: Tell me more about your new business.

A: I went from my first job post sport that felt really familiar to running my own business and trying to be an entrepreneur and figure out what comes next. I work out of a small studio called Performance and Powerhouse Pilates. It’s really nice being in a space that is smaller, that feels more homey.

I’m mostly a fitness coach. I like working with individuals to help them reach their goals, whatever that might look like. If that is running a marathon I’m not going to be a running coach, but I would be the person building them a strength program. I just want to make sure that people can continue to do the thing that they like to.

How to live without pain is a really important thing for me because I have lived in that for so long (Gallays has had surgery on her left and right ACLs as well as two surgeries on the meniscus in her left knee). Due to my own injuries, I have had to learn how to understand and feel my body in a different way and I’m just hoping that I can teach more people how to move better. That’s really all I want: I want people to be able to do what they want to do without pain.

Q: On top of opening your own business, you also have a three-year-old son. How does what you’ve learned as a professional athlete translate into your life as a business woman and mom?

A: What high-performance sport has taught me is to be resilient and to be adaptable. To be high performance, you need to stick to a plan and be very poignant of the things you do, but you also need to be kind to yourself and learn that every day is going to be different and you need to figure out how to be the best you you can be today. Sometimes we’re always trying to be better than what we were yesterday. And I can tell you, when I went to the Olympic Games, I was not the best me I’ve ever been, but I was the best me that I could have been that day. What really helps push you through on those harder days is to be kind and give yourself grace and meet yourself where you’re at because sometimes, as high-performance individuals, whether it’s in sport or in a business, we’re always trying to do more when doing less is actually what your body and your mind need. So reminding yourself to recover and enjoy those little moments really can make a difference in my day now.

Q: What is your mindset as the 2024 Paris Olympics approach and you know you won’t be there?

A: In 2020 I almost zoned it all out because COVID happened and the Olympics ended up happening in 2021 and then it just didn’t have the same energy that an Olympics should have.

This year I’m actually so excited for because I really feel like I’ve retired and I can just like wrestling and sports for what it is and cheer people on that I know and I don’t know. I feel like I’ll be able to live in it a little bit more, be a true spectator and cheerleader whereas four years ago, I don’t feel like I would have been able to do that.

Q: Tell me about what you’re doing at Brainsport these days.

A: I’m fitting shoes and stocking shelves and doing whatever needs to get done in a day. I couldn’t have asked for a better workplace to be in in this transitional period in my life. Brainsport has the coolest culture. Everyone that works there loves their job and loves talking about shoes.

Q: What does a wrestler know about running shoes?

A: No wrestler knows anything about running shoes! I mostly know about running shoes based on my kinesiology background and working in the strength and conditioning world and understanding how I responded to my own injuries

I can run — I actually really do enjoy running — I just find my four knee surgeries and my back slow me down so I feel like I need to take my own advice and maybe start strengthening my body a little bit before I start up a new hobby.

I do walk a ton. And sometimes people come in and say “I don’t run, I’m just a walker” and some people that are walking are actually logging way more miles than someone who’s running. So you need good shoes for that too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.