Countless hours of exercise, grueling weightlifting and flexibility sessions, in addition to months of cross-training and choreographed dancing, have paid off handsomely for Israel Melendez and Christine Russell.
The local duo defeated six other regional finalist pairs in the Reebok Mid-Atlantic Mixed-Pairs Aerobics Championships Sept. 23 at White Marsh Mall in Baltimore County. The win earns them a trip, along with nine other regional mixed pairs, to the National Aerobic Finals in January 1991, in either Las Vegas or Los Angeles.
In the White Marsh competition, Melendez and Russell were required to put together a 2 minute 45 second choreographed routine including gymnastics, dancing and cheerleading-type maneuvers. The tandem also had to complete a minimum of four sit-ups, jumping jacks, high kicks, and push-ups within the allotted time.
"We were up against some very good competition," said Russell, a 25-year-old Severna Park native. "The competition now is getting a lot harder. The judges are looking to see different variations of the required maneuvers."
Melendez, 31, a New York City native living in Glen Burnie and control room operator for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. as been an active participant in competitive aerobics for three years. Staying in shape helped fuel his desire in the sport.
"Aerobics is more than just dancing," said Melendez, "we're trying to get away from that stereotype. A lot of hard work and physical training goes into this. It's really more of a sport than just dancing. In fact, Reebok is now pushing to have aerobics as an Olympic sport by the 1996 games."
Russell, a saleswoman with Black and Decker and former field hockey and lacrosse player at Severna Park High School, agrees.
"You really have to be devoted," said Christine, who is in her first year of competitive aerobics. "There's just so much that goes into it. In order to be successful, you basically have to eat, sleep, and drink aerobics."
In addition to being partners in the gym, as well as fellow instructors, the friendly, easy-going tandem have been dating for almost a year -- a situation that has its pros and cons.
"By us being together a lot, it really helps with communication. It's important that we try each other's ideas," said Melendez. "Plus, my working shift-work takes away from some of the time that Christine and I have together, but the workouts make up for the lost time.
"But sometimes," he added with a chuckle, "we disagree about things, and that's when Jill becomes a referee."
Jill is Jill Kover of Severna Park, a mother of four, aerobics instructor at Body Business in Severna Park and Melendez's partner for two years. She was instrumental in pairing the newly-crowned champions.
"I think they get along very well together," Kover said. "But like Izzy said, I do have to sometimes step in between the two of them."
While adopting similar attitudes toward their training procedures and workouts, which includes a strict low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, Izzy and Christine are a stark contrast in competitive philosophies.
"We're both very dedicated to the sport, but I train to do the very best that I can do, nothing more, nothing less," Melendez said. "If I don't win first place, or even if I don't earn a medal, it doesn't bother me that much, as long as I know I did my best."
"I'd say I'm more competitive than Izzy," said Russell. "I guess my athletic background and my job makes me keep more focused in on winning."
At the moment, the newly-crowned champions are resting, giving their bodies time to recuperate. In about three weeks, they will begin training for the national championships (to be televised by ESPN) -- weightlifting three days a week, aerobic workouts five or six times a week, two- to three-hour-a-day choreography sessions, in addition to rigorous cross-training and flexibility exercises.
The winners not only will be considered the best in the United States, but also will be signed to a one-year promotional world-tour with Reebok.
"The judges are very picky in general," said Kover, "but at the nationals, they will look at everything, from the originality of the routine to the outfits that they'll wear."
With everything at stake, the Russell-Melendez duo feel privileged to be placed among the country's aerobic elite.
"I didn't even expect to win (White Marsh). It was a total surprise," Melendez said. "It all hit me at once, it was an emotional win. Now, we'll rest up and give it another try."