Having coffee with Indiana Rannells

Author: Sarah Cahalan '14

One fall night about nine years ago, my parents dropped me off at Main Circle for my first overnight visit to Notre Dame. I was meeting a high school friend a few years my senior for a stay in her Walsh Hall dorm room, and as soon as I arrived, she suggested a number of collegiate activities we could try for the evening. It was a Thursday night, so a few dorm parties were on the schedule, but my friend wasn’t too keen on those, she explained — she was worn out after her kickboxing class.


Kickboxing? I thought. Now that’s what cool college girls do.


I never asked my friend who taught her class that day, but in all likelihood it was the same woman who taught my second-ever kickboxing class last Thursday at the new Smith Center for Recreational Sports: Indiana Rannells.


Indiana 001Indiana in class. Photo courtesy of RecSports/Kendra Bayne


Indiana is a bit of a legend around campus. The grandmother of six has taught RecSports classes since the Clinton administration, and she hopes to teach her standard schedule this fall semester: 14 classes a week ranging from Sunrise Cycle to something called simply Flex n Tone. Before taking her class, I heard a variety of reports on the longtime instructor. “She’s tough.” “She’s great.” “She’s both.”


Needless to say, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into her studio, but, given my checkered past with physical fitness, I was more than a little apprehensive.


It turns out I didn’t need to worry.


“When Jennie Phillips, my boss, called me for interviews, I was shocked,” Rannells told me of her first contact with the University in 1998. A recent transplant from Nicaragua at the time, she had never heard of Notre Dame while growing up. (In fact, she’d never heard of the state of Indiana until she arrived here — Indiana is a common Nicaraguan girl’s name.) And she certainly didn’t imagine that someone with her background could be in-demand as a fitness instructor.


Rannells followed her ex-husband — a Peace Corps volunteer she met in Managua — to South Bend in 1993. Thanks to an unexpected pregnancy and a blossoming love affair with American food, her weight quickly ticked up from 110 pounds to 200. Her newly heavy frame made her uncomfortable at the gym, but one day, an aerobics instructor at Mishawaka’s Pinnacle Athletic Club noticed Rannells watching her class from outside the room.


Mid-session, the instructor came outside, covered her microphone, and invited Indiana to join in.


“I can’t,” she remembers saying. “Look at me.”


The instructor insisted. Rannells gave the class a try and, with the instructor’s encouragements and modifications, soon became a regular. After losing 40 pounds in her first year at Pinnacle, she decided to try teaching classes herself. She trained with indoor-cycling pioneer Johnny G in Chicago, earned certifications in step and aerobics, and, before long, her reputation as an instructor at IUSB and area YMCAs brought Notre Dame calling.


Rannells was back to her pre-pregnancy weight and as fit as any instructor around when she taught her first class at the brand-new Rolfs Sports Recreation Center, but she feared her strong Central American accent would hold her back.


Like me in Indiana’s kickboxing class, she needn’t have worried.


She discovered early in her teaching career that specific words aren’t as important in the studio as enthusiasm. In her first step classes on campus, she says, “It was like, ‘Follow me!’ ‘Follow me!’” To compensate for her limited English, she dialed her energy up — way up.


Her stamina today, at age 53, easily surpasses that of every springy 20-year-old in class. Though her motivational vocabulary has expanded over the past two decades — “You are the best of the best butt-kicker!” — her leadership style is still by example. In our hour-long class, she seemed to never take a break, making it easy to follow her moves any time I glanced her way. I could rarely keep up, but that was OK, too — another holdover from her early days of teaching.


“It’s not a competition,” she says. “It’s just — have fun! If you can’t do this, do it this way. If you can’t do a push-up, do something else, just keep moving.”


I’ve heard that said in other classes, but Rannells actually means it. She knows she wouldn’t be where she is today without the encouragement of that first, forgiving Pinnacle instructor, and she wants to be that same inviting force for people today.


Clearly, it’s working.


Many of Rannells’ students have stuck with her classes for their entire college careers or, in the case of staff and faculty, for as many as seven straight years. Two of her former students are now RecSports instructors. Repeat students no doubt each have their own reasons for sticking around, but I’d bet that a consistent theme is Indiana’s uniqueness.


She’s as fit as anyone on campus, but she’s forgiving if you aren’t since she’s been there herself. She loves food, insisting that you can enjoy both cardio boot camp and a Thanksgiving feast. In a sea of Lululemon yoga pants, she works out in camo print and Air Jordans.


From the long-term clients to the size of her classes — kickboxing last week was filled to capacity even though we’re in the slow weeks between the summer session and fall semester — it’s obvious that students love Indiana. But she loves them, too.


“Every year, it’s my ‘last year,’” she says. “But I keep going and going and going. The students keep me coming back.”


Sarah Cahalan is an associate editor of this magazine. She will be signing up for kickboxing this semester.