The Conqueror


Recovering from a college injury sparked this trainer's drive to improve the health of others with her fitness business.

Nicole Renna grew up always wanting to play soccer. Her skills earned her a scholarship to the University of Oregon. Unfortunately, what was initially diagnosed as shin splints in her freshman year was actually more serious: compartment syndrome, which is an overuse injury involving the compression of nerves, blood vessels and muscles inside a closed space that can eventually cause tissue death if left untreated. After being misdiagnosed for a year, and going through three unsuccessful surgeries, Renna was told by doctors that there was a chance she’d have to get her feet amputated due to a loss of circulation. She began to put on weight, feeling that she’d lost a part of herself.

“I had to decide what else is important to me,” said Renna, noting that she only got back into running in the last year or so and no longer plays soccer. She’s also been getting massage therapy for her shins. “I gained weight, got depressed and had to re-identify what I was doing in life. At the time I felt very defeated.”

Battling back from her dejected state inspired her to form Invictus Fitness, her personal training company, in January 2010. The name comes from a William Ernest Henly poem called “Invictus” that talks about keeping your head and overcoming adversity no matter the circumstances. In Latin, invictus means unconquered or undefeated. Unlike many personal trainers, Renna doesn’t work with her clients at any of the city’s many gyms, but instead goes to their home, workplace or favorite outdoor spot.

Renna pulled herself out of it, gradually, with the encouragement of people like her grandmother, whose tell-it-like-it-is wisdom and bluntness cut through her feelings of self-pity. “I really respected that,” Renna said. “She even calls me with workout questions now and she’s so supportive.”

This southern California-raised woman transferred to UNC Charlotte and stayed for a year before finishing out school in Oregon with a psychology degree. Renna dealt with her own internal coming out struggle, and her religious upbringing, with relative ease–although at the time, she thought her mother would disown her. “I was scared to tell her, but once I did I found that she reacted in a funny way,” said Renna , who came out seven years ago. “She said, ‘Oh, I know.’ I think it was hard for her, but she was a supportive, awesome mom.”

“You don’t need much equipment or space to get in shape,” she said, noting that clients sign up for a specific number of sessions per month. “I make it easy for them. And really, the focus is not just on exercise but also on diet.”

Her clients range from business owners to professionals to athletes. Some are trying to make major life changes, while others are taking their fitness to a different level. Two of them were effusive in their praise for Renna ’s professionalism and techniques.

“Nicole is patient, motivating, energetic and encouraging,” said Becky Arreaga, who has trained with Renna on and off for a year. “She provides the perfect mix of inspiration and perspiration!”

Allen Ruiz, whose work as an educator and co-owner of Jackson Ruiz Salon often has him traveling to other cities, said that Renna provides him with solid workout routines that he can do in his hotel room or at the hotel gym.

“She works to meet my crazy schedule when I’m at home,” Ruiz said. “What I have gained from her in over a year is a full understanding of calories in, calories out. I’m stronger and more fit than I have ever been.”

When Renna is not running around town meeting with clients (her days begin at 6 a.m.), or out kayaking on town lake or catching a live music show, she volunteers for the Jollyville Fire Department. She used to meet and interact with firefighters at the gym and she’s always wanted to work as a fire fighter. She went through a three-month training period and her crew relies on her for almost every aspect of the job (she’s not EMT-certified, so with medical calls she is limited).

“It’s been almost two years as a volunteer firefighter, now,” she said, noting that she puts in 30 hours per month as a volunteer firefighter and had planned to try out for the AFD in December. “My motivation is to potentially get on with the Austin Fire Department part time and do both.”

The secret of Renna ’s success is her ability to listen to each of her clients and figure out their unique motivations. What held them back from getting in shape? What’s the mental aspect behind it?

“In the end, I’m there to help them reach those goals. You have to be very straightforward with people and not sugarcoat things,” Renna said. “That’s what I learned from my grandmother when she said that I needed to lose weight. You have to find a way to deliver the information that they need, which maybe no one else is going to tell them.”