There is a reason why the Peachblossom YMCA family pool is named in honor of Ellen S. Rajacich. At 92 years young, Rajacich has a spirit and energy that puts most people half her age to shame. Despite being a great-grandmother, she still teaches water fitness classes three days a week at the Y, motivating her students to stay active and healthy. Her dedication to health and commitment to helping others achieve their goals has earned her a reputation as a local legend and a true inspiration.
There is another reason Rajacich is so unique, and it started in 1969 when she volunteered to teach a women’s exercise class. She had recently moved to Easton, was raising her children, and wanted something to do. Her husband, Nick, then the Chief Administrator at the Memorial Hospital, encouraged his wife to volunteer at the newly built Y. Rajacich had a nursing degree from John Hopkins and, even though she never practiced nursing, wanted to use her education. “I’ve always been very interested in how the human body works and what you can do to make it work better.” Teaching an exercise class seemed to be a perfect fit. Half a century later, she is still an avid instructor. She is also still a volunteer and has never wanted to be paid for her services. “I was fortunate not to need the money,” she said.
Easton Y’s Executive Director, Wendy Palmer, is grateful for the many years Rajacich has been a part of the organization. “The YMCA has a long tradition of volunteerism dating back to 1861, and the YMCA will be here long after we are all gone. Ellen continues to lead others in water aerobics, but we all know she leads with love in her heart. I hope her story will inspire others.”
Her story and career as a fitness instructor include over 15 certifications, attendance at multiple conferences and training programs on behalf of the Y, and teaching over 30 different formats of land and water exercises. But it is her expertise in aqua dynamics and deep-water exercise that has kept her attention, and those of her students, since 1986.
Even today, you won’t find Rajacich at the poolside, shouting instructions. She is in the water, illustrating what to do and working out with the class. She uses water barbells to strengthen and encourages her students to continue attending class. “Working out in the water is a really great form of exercise because you have to overcome water resistance,” she says. Rajacich also sticks by the exercise program that has worked for her classes for over 20 years. It involves raising their heart rate, followed by a workout focusing on the legs, arms, and core.
Gale Shehan, who has been taking Rajacich’s classes for over ten years, said that the message students take away from her classes is that it’s never too late to start and always to keep working on it. “She’s very concerned about our fitness and helping us maintain that. At the end of the class, she will often tell us to ‘fight gravity’ because gravity is what kills us all in the end. We’re all quite devoted to her, and she to us.”
Rajacich’s point of being stronger and healthier extends beyond her class. Sandi Whitehurst, who teaches Deep Water HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) at the Y, said, “As a fellow water fitness instructor, I continue to be impressed with Ellen. She is a picture of health and a motivator and mentor.”
Even at 92, Rajacich enjoys being self-sufficient. “I’m capable of anything. I’m capable of taking care of myself,” she said. Despite that determination, her children decided she should stop driving six months ago. Nevertheless, she keeps busy seeing family, sewing, caring for her house, and sailing and racing with her son.
When asked about secrets to her longevity, Rajacich is quick to respond. “My diet consists of meat and potatoes and vegetables. My bedroom is on the second floor of my house, and the only way to get there is to climb the stairs, so I climb. That’s something I also encourage my students: always keep climbing.”
Anything else, we asked, besides a good diet, fighting gravity, and climbing? Yes, she said, keep smiling.
Now that’s a piece of advice we can all follow.
Val Cavalheri is a writer and photographer. She has written for various publications, including The Washington Post. Previously she served as the editor of several magazines, including Bliss and Virginia Woman. Although her camera is never far from her reach, Val retired her photography studio when she moved from Northern Virginia to the Eastern Shore a few years ago.. She and her husband, Wayne Gaiteri, have two children and one grandchild.