When Ellen Fishback yells “jump,” you ask how high.
“When I teach, I push other people till they can’t do any more,” said the 51-year-old fitness instructor. “Because your body can do a lot more than you think.”
Fishback is dressed in all black and sporting blood-red hand wraps. Her long black hair is pulled into loose pigtails. Her 5 o’clock kickboxing class at TITLE Boxing Club near Oak View Mall in Omaha is about to start, and students are pouring in.
Though exercise is her passion, years ago it was more like medicine. Working out helped Fishback recover from a serious illness — one doctors don’t have a name for — and a deep depression.
In 2002, a virus attacked the nerves in her inner ear. It compromised her balance, making her constantly dizzy and nauseous.
At first, doctors treated it like the flu. A few weeks later, she lost hearing in her left ear, and her symptoms worsened.
“I went to every specialist,” Fishback said. “I went to the Mayo Clinic (in Minnesota). Nobody could help me.”
She was bedridden for nine months and sank into a severe depression.
“I started having terrible panic attacks because I thought (that) was going to be my life,” she said.
She started physical therapy — an 18-month journey — to re-learn basic skills such as walking and turning her head from side to side. A psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants, too, which sparked a feeling of hope. Her husband suggested she also start exercising.
She tried the treadmill first, gripping the handles and ignoring the waves of nausea that crashed over her. She moved to the stairstepper next and finally felt well enough to take group exercise classes. The music and the people pushed her to work even harder. Soon she was leading the classes.
Fast forward to today, and Fishback says she’s in the best shape of her life. She teaches five to 10 classes a week, ranging from boot camps to kettlebell classes, at three different gyms.
But kickboxing is her favorite.
“I’m a very intense person,” she said. “I like to move around, and in kickboxing you’re constantly moving.”
When she teaches, she makes sure the people in her class are, too. Fishback’s philosophy is “Go big, or go home.”
“But they can’t go home because I lock the door,” she said, letting out a laugh that filled the studio.
When her class starts a few minutes later, she shouts out kickboxing combinations, darting around the floor space and weaving between punching bags.
Jab, cross, hook, cross.
She punches the air while her students zero in on the bags in front of them.
“Go, go, go, go,” she yells over the music. “You’ve got 30 seconds.”
Fishback says she’s a living testimonial that if you’re at rock bottom, you can pull yourself up.
“It’s about being mentally tough and ... how important living a healthy lifestyle is (to you),” she said. “I don’t care if you’re a size 10 or a size zero, it’s about living a healthy lifestyle.”