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The Sporting Life: Bernard Ellis offers "boot camp" to Orange County teachers

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Bernard Ellis leads boot camp at the Hornet Sport Center

Bernard Ellis (far right) teaches his trainees a number of exercises they can do on their own between exercise classes. Here, Annie Neeley, Mike Neeley and Eric Smith perform deep knee bends. 

The latest in "The Sporting Life," an occasional series about athletes and sports activities in Orange County.

There is a big difference between declining a second pork chop and getting in tip-top physical condition, and Bernard Ellis is determined to help Orange County teachers hit that loftier mark.

The 1993 Orange County High School (OCHS) graduate has been leading a “boot camp” exercise class twice a week in the Hornet Sports Center since the end of the school year. The idea, he said, is to help teachers improve their health and bring more energy and enthusiasm to their classroom duties.

“When you’re tired, your patience runs pretty thin,” said Ellis, 44, a truck driver who has devoted much of his free time over the past 13 or 14 years to coaching youth sports in Orange County and recently began working as a personal trainer at NxtGen Training in Orange.

Because he spends many hours of his workday behind the wheel of a truck, he said he can relate to teachers glued to their desks for long periods of time. He wants them to get moving and get strong, for their own sake and the sake of their students.

“If you have healthy teachers and teachers that have more energy, it’s better for the kids,” he said.

Ellis said he proposed the boot camp to his friend Mike Neeley, activities director for OCHS, out of a desire to give back to his alma mater. For each session, he charges $5 per person. The boot camp is open to Orange County Public Schools staff and their family members and meets twice a week, Wednesday evenings and Saturdays at noon.

Neeley and his wife, Annie, a teacher at Gordon-Barbour Elementary School, and Eric Smith, husband of OCHS physical education teacher Ashley Smith, are regular participants. Suzanne Wilmoth, a science teacher at OCHS, attended until vacation travel took her out of town.

By email, Wilmoth gave the rigorous workout class a rave review: “Bernard works us hard, but at the same time, he is very positive and encouraging. The first couple of times, my legs were like jelly when I left and I had to ease down the stairs. But what’s great is that it doesn’t take long to feel a difference. Doing something like squatting to get a skillet out of the cupboard suddenly feels easier.” 

On a recent Wednesday evening, the Neeleys and Smith ran a couple of warm-up laps around the indoor track at the Hornet Sports Center. Then, with Ellis calling out instructions, they launched into a series of strength-building exercises, including jump-squats, lunges, pushups and planks.

Annie Neeley took the lead in counting reps as the group worked their way through one set after another. Their faces reflected the strain they were under, and small talk was at a minimum as they conserved their breath for the exertion at hand. No one objected whenever Ellis told them to take a moment to rest and drink some water.

“They love and hate me all at once,” the muscular instructor observed with a grin.

What makes his class worthy of the name “boot camp,” which conjures up images of military recruits running miles at a time with heavy packs on their packs?

“I call it ‘getting them ready for boot camp,’” Ellis admitted as the Neeleys and Smith huffed and puffed their way through another set of reps. He plans to introduce more difficult exercises once the participants have increased their strength and stamina.

During these early weeks, he is teaching his students how to strengthen the core muscles that get weak when they stay seated most of the day. He quietly points out ways they can improve their form so they can get the most out of each exercise.

“Training from the inside out—train the heart and the core, and everything else will fall into place,” he said.

He assigns exercises people can do without any special equipment, on their own.

And he is a big proponent of just that: “If you can go home and watch TV for 30 minutes, you can do that workout while you’re watching.”

If you’re exercising because you want to lose weight, Ellis has some creative advice: “Instead of looking at the scale every day and being unhappy about it, stay off the scale because you’ll get disappointed and then you’ll stop” exercising.

Instead, he said, go out and buy a beautiful dress or a stylish shirt that will fit once you’ve toned up your muscles: “Train to fit in those clothes you want to wear.”

Near the end of the recent training session, the Neeleys and Smith groaned good-naturedly when Ellis told them to line up for the dreaded “suicides”—sprints up and down the hallway in the field house. Annie Neeley ran on her own and then cheered on the “boys” as they took their turn.

Afterwards, as they caught their breath and wiped their brows, the athletes-in-training promised they’d be back on Saturday for another session.

“Bernard came to us with this idea, and we’re grateful,” Mike Neeley said. “Anybody, no matter what shape they’re in, will benefit from this workout.”

“It’s good,” Smith added. “I’m glad [Ellis] started doing it. It gets easier.”





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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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