Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Chooses Working Out Over Dinner with the President

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as illustrated in the new book, Notorious RBG. (Source: Eleanor Davis)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and a former law professor at Rutgers and Columbia, is well known for her commitment to civil rights — but she is also notorious for her commitment to her fitness routine, too. At age 29, she discovered the Canadian Air Force workout at a tax conference with her husband, and even now, at age 82, she still performs the circuit training program almost daily. Ginsburg was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, but as soon as she was done with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, she began working on regaining her strength. In MSNBC national reporter Irin Carmon and Notorious RBG founder Shana Knizhnik’s upcoming book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which will be released on October 27, 2015, the justice’s personal trainer for almost 20 years, Bryant Johnson, explains just how determined she was to return back to top physical health. Below is an exclusive excerpt from the book.

One evening — and her training sessions are almost always in the evening, usually at 7 p.m. — when RBG’s session directly followed [Justice] Kagan’s, she asked about [Kagan’s boxing] gloves. Johnson suggested the senior justice give them a thump. “She said, ‘No, we’ll leave that for her.’”

So had RBG finally found her limit?

Johnson has a theory about that: “She’s already empowered.”

If he wanted to, Johnson could take some credit for the fact that RBG has kept up her daunting work output and her frenetic social schedule past the age of eighty. Mostly he’s just happy that, he says, RBG hasn’t lost any bone density since they began training, which beats the odds for her age. “She fell in her chambers once, on her hip,” he said. “What happens to older women when they fall?” Johnson was referring to the fact that they often break bones. “She went to the doctor, came back, and said, ‘Nothing’s broken.’ That was my report card.”

They had a scare during one training session, when RBG started feeling light-headed. Her chest felt constricted, and she broke out in a sweat. She wondered whether it was because she had stayed up the night before writing an opinion, and wanted to ignore it. “I was very stubborn,” she says. Johnson called her secretary, who, as RBG puts it, in her “gently persuasive way,” insisted she go to the hospital.

As Johnson saw RBG to the ambulance, he promised, “You ain’t going out on my watch.” He added something else that made RBG smile: “I said, ‘Justice, you do realize this is not going to get you out of doing these push-ups.’”

An EKG showed she had a blocked right coronary artery, and doctors put in a stent. “I was fine,” RBG told me. “No more constriction in my chest. I wanted to go home.” She laughed. The doctors insisted she stay in the hospital two nights.

When her hospital stay became public, Johnson got a text message from a fellow trainer in Ohio, whom he’d met at a fitness convention, where RBG was an instant hero. “‘Yo B, what you doing to the justice, man?’” his friend demanded. “I’m like, ‘How do you know?’ ‘We keep NPR on!’”

The heart stent was inserted on a Wednesday. RBG still wanted to train on the following Monday. That time, Johnson relented — as long as they only did stretching exercises. By then, he knew she would pick working out over almost anything else. Even her own bones. Even dinner with the president.

RBG plainly adores Barack Obama. She calls him “sympathique,” a French word that is one of her highest forms of praise. And yet one night, Johnson remembers, RBG slipped out early from a dinner at the White House. After all, she had a date at the gym.

“I said, ‘You left the president for me?’” Johnson recalls. “‘Oh man, extra push-ups for you.’”

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Photo: Dey Street Books)

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