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Our tribute to Mari Winsor: Fitness icon, powerful ALS advocate, and a dear friend of the Golden West Chapter

April 30, 2020

Mari Winsor, an internationally renowned fitness legend who was widely credited with popularizing Pilates and making this once obscure workout accessible to the public, died peacefully at her home surrounded by family and close friends on Tuesday, April 28, 2020, at the age of 70. She had been living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since 2013. Winsor is survived by her husband Elliot Nachbar, a retired Local 80 Union Grip, and two sisters, Phyllis Mazure and Gwenn Smookler of Port Saint Lucie, Florida.

She was an international celebrity in the world of health and fitness. The Los Angeles Times Called Mari Winsor “The Oracle of Pilates”.

Team Winsor Pilates at 2017 LA Walk 

Mari Winsor was born on March 11, 1950 in Marshall, Michigan and was warmly welcomed by  her two older sisters, Phyllis Mazure and Gwen Winsor Smookler of Port Saint Lucie, Florida. As a natural born dancer, Mari went on to study modern dance at Michigan State University. After graduating college, she moved to New York City and received a scholarship at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. After finishing at Ailey, Mari moved to Detroit and then to San Francisco to dance, choreograph, and teach. She then moved again to Los Angeles in 1984 where she continued her passions as a dancer. A personal highlight was dancing with Michael Jackson in his “Smooth Criminal” music video (1988) and working as a featured dancer in films such as Moonwalker (1988), Salsa (1988) Roadhouse (1989), and The Flash (1990). Over the course of 20 years, Mari’s career as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher took her across the United States, to France, Israel, and Eastern Europe.

As Mari approached her 40’s, she recognized that her dance career wasn’t going to be forever. A friend told her about “Pilates,” and she promptly found a local studio to learn the practice and shortly afterwards was hired as a teacher. In 1990, Mari opened her first Pilates studio, Winsor Pilates, in West Hollywood, and introduced her innovative signature workout, “dynamic sequencing,” based on techniques developed by Joseph Pilates. When she unveiled her signature workout in her first infomercial in 2003, her Winsor Pilates became synonymous with the word Pilates nationwide. Soon after, the highly visible bodies of musicians, professional athletes, and celebrities began to flock to her studio to be shaped, toned, and strengthened. In 1998, she opened a 2nd studio, Winsor West, in West L.A. Eager to learn as much as she possible could about Pilates, in 1992, Winsor began studying with Romana Kryzanowska, a first-generation Pilates elder, who trained with Joseph Pilates and took over his New York studio upon his death. After one year of intense study, Mari earned her certification in the true technique of Joseph Pilates. Mari continued to study with Kryzanowska until Kryzanowska’s death on August 30, 2013.

An international celebrity in the world of health and fitness, Mari Winsor was lovingly called the "Queen of Pilates,” by the Pilates community and widely credited with popularizing it through her Winsor Pilates workout series and award-winning infomercial. Mari was always humbled by that moniker and would say, “It wasn’t just me; it was really Romana. I’m just a Princess of Pilates.” She became the most sought-after Pilates in Hollywood whose roster of A-list clients included Drew Barrymore, Elizabeth Berkeley, Miley Cyrus, Minnie Driver, Daisy Fuentes, Dakota Johnson, Dustin Hoffman, George Lopez, Holly Robinson-Peete, Jasmine Guy, Jewel, Melanie Griffith, Meg Ryan, Minnie Driver, Emma Stone, Samuel Jackson, Maria Shriver, Sharon Stone, Madonna, Marisa Tomei, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Dita Von Teese, and Vanessa Williams.

Mari Winsor and Miley Cyrus at 2015 LA Walk<
Mari Winsor and Miley Cyrus at 2015 LA Walk to Defeat ALS

In 2003, Winsor brought Pilates to a new level of public recognition when she took to the airwaves and released her first infomercial with Guthy-Renker. The record-breaking success of the Winsor Pilates workout series and award-winning infomercials was unparalleled. Thirty videos and over 50 million programs have been sold and continue to be sold. Over the years, Winsor made appearances on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Oprah, WPIX-CW11, KABC, KCBS, KNBC, and KTLA and her fitness and Pilates expertise was featured in countless magazines such as: Allure, Glamour, Family Circle, Fit Pregnancy, Health, InStyle, More, People, Pilates Style, Redbook, Shape, Time, Us Weekly, Vogue, W, and Woman’s World. Winsor co-authored three books and created a series of Pilates DVDs and kits with Gaiam.

Then Mari Winsor was diagnosed with ALS in 2013. She did not become public until 2014, just months before the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge “soaked” the nation and generated extraordinary awareness about ALS.  Despite her diagnosis, Mari continued to teach Pilates to studios and teachers worldwide. She often said, “I may slur my speech a little, my left arm isn’t working so well, but that doesn’t stop me from fighting ALS.”

Mari Winsor leading warm up at 2014 LA Walk to Defeat ALS
Mari Winsor leading warm up at 2014 LA Walk to Defeat ALS

In the summer of 2014, Mari connected with The ALS Association Golden West Chapter and continued to do what she did best – get people moving. She led the warm-up for the Golden West Chapter’s annual Los Angeles Walk to Defeat ALS for two consecutive years, 2014 and 2015. In 2015, her client, Miley Cyrus, jumped on stage with her and walked with Team Winsor Pilates. When mobility became a challenge, her Winsor trainers kept the warm-up going. In 2016, Winsor’s close friend, Toni Basil (“Mickey,” 1981), singer, actress, choreographer, dancer, led the warm-up. Over the years, Team Winsor Pilates successfully raised over $91,000 for Los Angeles Walk to Defeat ALS.

Mari Winsor with LA News anchor, Elex Michaelson, and LA Walk Committee Member, Joy Aronson

As a part of her mission to inspire others suffering with neurodegenerative diseases, to fight ALS, and to promote opportunities for funding and research, Mari traveled with her husband, Eliot Nachbar and The ALS Association Golden West Chapter delegation to Washington, DC, in 2015 for National ALS Advocacy Day – a day designed to promote ALS awareness and advance important public policy initiatives to benefit the ALS community. Mari met with many Congressional leaders and Senators on the Hill to share her personal experience and advocate for others living with ALS. Over the years, Mari continued her work as an ALS advocate and spokesperson for the ALS community.

In April 2020, knowing that Mari’s journey with ALS was coming to a close, her niece and namesake, Mari “Missy” Levitan, arranged for family and friends to participate in video conference celebration gatherings. Three events were held over two days that included over 200 guests—trainers, clients, friends, family members, fellow dancers, and sorority sisters so that Mari could experience this outpouring of love and support by everyone for the impact she has made on their lives and the difference she made in this world.

An interviewer once asked Mari, “If Heaven exists, and by some chance when you arrive at the pearly gates Joseph Pilates is also there, what would you like to hear him say to you?” Mari’s reply was, “Welcome. Never give up.… never stop moving and not to focus on what you cannot do but focus on what you can do. And go from there.”

Donations in Mari’s memory can be made online at www.TeamWinsorPilates.org