- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

LEWES, Del. (AP) - Cassandra Parker isn’t a 55-year-old fitness instructor.

She’s a fitness instructor who happens to be 55.

It’s a small distinction but an important one for the Lewes woman. Few who meet her notice her age anyway. They figure she’s in her 30s like many of the other stretch pant-clad women in her line of work. Maybe her 40s. But that’s it.

So this isn’t a story about a woman who overcame the inexorable march of time to succeed at a younger person’s game. It could be, but it’s not. It’s a story about overcoming something much more interesting: herself.

In a way, being a fitness instructor is like being a university professor. It takes hours of preparation to lead one hour of instruction. When done well, all those hours spent perfecting the presentation melt away in the eyes of the audience.

For Parker, a longtime stay-at-home mom who went on to carve out a career in fashion, there was no issue with putting in the work. And she certainly knew her way around a gym, having been a regular at fitness centers for her entire adult life.

There was just one problem, she says: “I don’t like being in front of people. I’m not a showgirl.”

Parker was the third of four girls, growing up in Dover. Her mother stayed at home; her father ran the distribution department for the Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper in the Maryland and Delaware region. As a kid, Parker was no fitness buff. She played field hockey in high school. That was about it.

She studied criminal justice at Delaware Technical Community College on her way to what she thought would be a career as a juvenile parole officer. That didn’t work out. Instead, she worked as a territory manager for a major cigarette maker.

Parker would get married at 20 years old. She and her husband, Steve, have been married for 35 years. A few years later, they would have two children, Brandon and Travis.

Along the way, she started going to a gym. The motivation to join a gym comes in various forms: a health scare, a desire to enter the dating scene, to satisfy a competitive streak. For a then-18-year-old Parker, it was simply “to be healthy and fit,” she recalls.

Things were different at fitness centers then.

“I’m going to tell you about this place, and it’s hilarious,” Parker says. “It was a girls place. They had these little belts and they would jiggle. It’s funny because they still had it, and they should have gotten rid of it years ago. You would stand on this treadmill-like thing, but it was stationary. You’d hold on the railing and this belt would go around your waist and it would just jiggle you.”

Years later, she can’t help but laugh at the memory of using one of the machines.

“People must think I’m from back in the 1900s,” she says.

As the Parkers’ children got older, Cassandra started working outside the house at clothing stores and as a fashion consultant. Through the years, maintaining a healthy lifestyle remained in the background of her life. She worked out up to six days a week, and she and Steve adopted a diet that would be called vegan if not for the occasional plate of seafood.

“If it’s important, you do it,” she says.

Parker, in particular, loved fitness classes. Working out with a group creates a community atmosphere that inspires participants to stick out the regimen, she says.

For years, Steve would encourage her to become an instructor herself. But Parker couldn’t bring herself to take that step. She didn’t feel she was leadership material.

Finally, in the spring of 2014, she says: “My mind said, ‘Do it or you’ll never do it at all.’ The day I looked at it was the day I signed up.”

Yes, her husband’s confidence helped. But there was something else: a medical scare nearly 20 years earlier that changed her outlook on life.

Parker was diagnosed with Stage II melanoma - skin cancer. Today she has a lengthy scar above her right breast to show for the harrowing ordeal, as well as a different philosophy. The little things don’t bother her as much anymore. If she wants to do something, she makes the time to do it.

There are many different kinds of fitness classes. Parker decided to learn how to lead carefully scripted, hour-long workout sessions called the BodyPump program. Developed and distributed by New Zealand-based Les Mills International, the workouts incorporate weights and specially selected dance music to sculpt and tone several muscle groups.

To teach, she had to be certified. To be certified, she had to study and practice. She had to memorize and perform a class before a group of judges and submit a video of herself leading a session.

She got a letter a few weeks letter, telling her she had been rejected.

Dejected but undeterred, Parker committed virtually every spare hour to perfecting her performances and understanding the material.

“I haven’t read a book since I started this program,” she said the other day.

This time, she filmed her video in front of a live workout group. And she passed.

Today she leads BodyPump and spinning classes at Rise Fitness and Adventure in Lewes and 24-7 Club Fitness in Rehoboth and she is working toward becoming a general group fitness instructor. She isn’t the type to stop or even slow down, after all.

Parker says she hopes she can inspire others to get fit as well, regardless of, well, age.

Her motto: “You can be strong at any age.”

___

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., https://www.delmarvanow.com/

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