Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “in our society, the women who break down barriers are those who ignore limits". That’s exactly what Maria Balang did. Maria starting working out to get in shape but soon found herself on the stage competing against women half her age. This mother of four would go on to capture one of bodybuilding top honors, earning her IFBB pro card in the ultra-completive bikini division. Maria’s accomplishments are not just a source of pride for her family but for her people, the Lahu. The Lahu are an ethnic group the lives in southern China and the golden triangle area of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar as well as Vietnam.
Maria was among a small group of Lahu from Laos who settled in America as refugees after the secret war. Her family landed in Rochester, MN, in 1981 when Maria was about four. Growing up, she was an athletic teenager and active in sports participating in cheerleading and travel Volleyball. Maria left sports behind as a young adult, got married and started a family.
Decades later in 2015 when Maria was the mother of four children and almost forty years old she decided to take working out seriously. A year later in 2016 she entered her first bodybuilding competition, the 2016 Dexter Jackson, in her home town of Jacksonville. Maria took fist place in the 35+ category and fourth overall in the open B category an impressive finish for someone new to the sport. After her initial success she placed second at a show in Pensacola, FL, which qualified her for national shows. Maria placed 4th at her first national show, the North Americans in Pittsburgh and in 2018 she made history by becoming the first known Lahu person to earn an IFBB Pro card when she took first at Masters Nationals.
Maria continues to be active in the sport but took some time off in 2019 to visit Southeast Asia with her husband. This was the first time either of them had been back to the region since leaving as young children. Their trip included stops in China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. You can listen to the complete interview with Maria on the SEA4 Podcast.