Olympic athlete now Island business owner

Brenda Canning Olympic game 2
Years before owning Island Fitness, Brenda Canning played on the United States Olympic women’s field hockey team in a game against the team from Japan. - Brenda Canning | Submitted

ANNA MARIA – It’s been a wild ride for Island business owner Brenda Canning as her athletic pursuits sent her all over the world before she landed on Anna Maria Island.

A Massachusetts native, Canning’s athletic career began when a schoolmate suggested she join the field hockey team. Not only did playing the game become her passion, her athletic prowess on the field led to a full scholarship to the University of New Hampshire and being recruited for the 1996 United States Olympic women’s field hockey team.

Brenda Canning solo play
Island gym owner Brenda Canning picks up her stick as a part of the 1996 Olympic women’s field hockey team. – Brenda Canning | Submitted

Reflecting on the start of her career, Canning said she was on her high school field hockey team for all four years of school and captain of the team during her senior year. During her junior and senior years, she also was a member of the All-American team. As she was graduating, she was honored as the first female athlete to have her jersey number, 17, retired at Malden High School.

As a part of her field hockey career, Canning not only trained with her teammates but also at developmental camps.

“I was just a jock,” she said. “I spent my summers playing and training.”

Canning laughed recalling that out of the three high school varsity sports she played – basketball, softball and field hockey – her favorite sport changed depending on the season. She said the only serious injury she’s sustained throughout her athletic career was a nose break as the result of an errant softball.

“I had to wear this big shield on my face,” she recalled. “It was terrible. Otherwise, I’ve been very lucky.”

After receiving offers from several different colleges, Canning said she decided on UNH because it was near her family and she had a good relationship with the field hockey coach who recruited her. That coach also worked with the Olympic women’s field hockey team, which Canning joined. While that field hockey coach moved on to work at Northwestern University, Canning said her coach for the next three years, Head Coach Robin Balducci, is still at UNH, entering her 28th season with the team.

“A lot of it came from my coaches,” she said of her field hockey career. “I have them to thank for everything.”

Canning joined the women’s Olympic team in 1992 and competed in the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, where the team finished in fifth place.

Brenda Canning sidelines
Brenda Canning takes a break on the sidelines with her fellow Olympic teammates. – Brenda Canning | Submitted

Leading up to the Olympics, Canning said she and her teammates were stationed in Norfolk, Va. where they trained five to six days a week and studied tapes of other teams playing on their days off. The team practiced in three sessions every day for seven months out of the year.

When the team wasn’t training or traveling the world to play other Olympic teams, Canning was working as the assistant women’s field hockey coach at Boston College. She called the years leading up to the Olympic Games “the best years of my life.”

During those years Canning said her life was on hold. While her friends were off getting married and starting families, she was training, traveling the world, having her body composition tested and her skills challenged.

“They want their athletes to be in the best possible shape,” she said, crediting her training for keeping her from sustaining major injuries. “I have no regrets.”

Walking into the Olympic Games, Canning said she was nervous, excited and enjoyed every moment of the experience.

Brenda Canning
The 1996 Olympic women’s field hockey team representing the United States plays a game against the Japanese team. – Brenda Canning | Submitted

“Looking around, all you can think is this is really happening,” she said. “It really truly was a great experience. I wouldn’t change anything for it.”

The only thing she wished she could change about the experience, Canning said, would have been for her parents to have been there to see her play in the Olympics. Both of her parents passed away before she played in the Games.

“I really wish my parents could’ve seen me play at that level, especially my dad,” she said, adding that throughout her athletic career her father was on the sidelines for every game until his death. “He truly was an inspiration for me,” Canning said.

After the Olympics, Canning elected to not compete on the team for another four years. Armed with her sociology degree, she planned to be a social worker. Instead, she got into fitness and began a career of working in gyms as a trainer before becoming a gym owner herself at Island Fitness.

After visiting Anna Maria Island and the Bradenton area with friends, Canning said she knew this was the right place for her to settle down.

“Maybe I was tired of the cold,” she said, laughing.

While working at a Cortez Road gym, Canning said a client approached her, suggesting that she become a trainer. That conversation led to her earning personal training credentials and the start of her fitness training career. After working for more than 12 years at gyms in town, Canning moved out to the Island where she worked at the Holmes Beach Island Fitness location before taking over ownership and eventually relocating to The Center of Anna Maria Island. She said this is her 12th season of ownership at the gym. And while she misses field hockey, she said her focus now is on Island Fitness and working with leadership at the Center to build up and increase programming and her annual client base.

“My goal now is to help the Center to be successful and increase community awareness of what’s happening here,” she said. Plans for Island Fitness’ future at the Center include the possibility of adding a massage therapist and acupuncturist to the staff, making the gym a one-stop fitness shop on the Island.

“There’s always something going on here,” she said.

As for field hockey, while she’d like to bring the sport to the Island community, she said it would be difficult to start a league. With other sports already so popular, Canning said she fears there wouldn’t be enough community support to sustain field hockey. She did say she would welcome the opportunity to play again, particularly in a pickup game, especially one at UNH with her old coach, Balducci.

“It would be fun to play again,” Canning said.