'Firm Believers' lose a friend

The family-written obituary for Anna Benson, best known as co-founder of The Body Firm studios and The Firm exercise videos, wonderfully captured her passion for physical fitness, for her home state of South Carolina and for life.

But last week's notice only hinted at the passion that flowed back to Benson from women throughout the world, all of whom felt they knew her on a first-name basis. When word began to spread that Benson had succumbed to stomach cancer last month at her new home in Panama at the age of 59, the emotions poured out on Internet fitness message boards.

"My regret is wondering if she ever knew how much we all cared about her life's work," said Julie Robinson of Fontana, Calif.

Anna Benson got started in the business with The Body Firm studios in Charleston and Columbia in 1979, long before the corporate world discovered exercise. Fees were collected at the door and kept in an old cigar box.

After deciding against franchising the studios, Anna and her former husband Mark Henriksen and her sister Cynthia Benson decided to try to spread their brand of fitness on video tapes. They produced the first The Firm video in 1986, focusing on the then-novel concept of combining aerobic and weight training.

"It was all about the timing and about Anna's insightfulness in the industry," said Nancy Tucker, who took classes under Anna Benson, appears in some of the videos and became her a protege. She now owns BodyFIT in Columbia.

"Anna had ingenuity and vision and talent," Tucker said. "It was a privilege to live through that whole heyday experience."

The Firm was out front in the wave of exercise videos, with an innovative fitness regimen and female-friendly production values. The Bensons and Henriksen were to women's exercise what Hootie and the Blowfish was to pop music - a phenomenon born in Columbia that grew bigger than locals could comprehend.

The Firm series, choreographed by Anna Benson, directed by Henriksen and marketed by Cynthia Benson, was a huge hit, with more than 100 million sold worldwide. Anna Benson wasn't in the videos, but she infused them with her exercise routines. Her image showed up in the catalog for the videos, giving her a special connection to people who bought the tapes.

Some enthusiasts - they called themselves Firm Believers - traveled to Columbia from throughout the country to work out at The Firm's studio with the Bensons and their featured instructors.

"We shared rooms, ate out, walked all over and enjoyed your beautiful historic city," Robinson said. "And started planning the next trip before we had even left. Anna Benson gave us this gift of friendship and health."

Benson's work changed lives, Internet posters say. And for many, those life changes endure decades later.

"She helped me learn foundational fitness truths that have stood the test of time. She was not a fad but a true pioneer!," wrote Jan Burgess of Columbia on Benson's registry.

Barbara Paola of Middletown, Conn., made six pilgrimages to South Carolina to work out at The Firm.

"Until I started using The Firm, I absolutely hated lifting weights," Paolo said. "It was a chore to me. Well, from the beginning, my first Firm tapes - Firm Cardio and Firm Strength - I was hooked not only on The Firm, but on weight lifting, which I still enjoy today."

The Firm Believers viewed Anna Benson with awe from afar, like a celebrity. Then they came to Columbia and found her to be a genuine, likable person - just as they had hoped.

"When I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Anna alone, to let her know how much I loved The Firm, she gave me a big hug, and with tears in her eyes, thanked me for coming on the trip, and for buying her workouts," Paolo said. "This wasn't a business to her, this was her life's work. This was her. She put herself into every workout she was involved in."

After a memorial service held at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Columbia on Dec. 1, Benson's mother, Anna Marian Stanley Tucker, was amazed by the number of strangers who approached her to tell her how much her daughter had impacted their lives.

Many more couldn't make it to the service. Barbara Gregus of Albuquerque, N.M., who felt as if she had lost a family member when she found out about Benson's death while ordering one of her videos online. (The family sold The Firm years ago, and it has gone through a couple of corporate changes. The Bensons started their own FitPrime Studio and sell the original videos through the Fitness Favorites nameplate.)

Gregus' tribute to Benson on included the line: "I thank you from the bottom of my glutes!"

"I felt like she was my friend even though we never met," Gregus said last week from her real estate office. "I got her first tape when I was 28 and I'm 51 now, and I still watch them. It seems like we grew up together."

Gregus has tried many other exercise videos, but she keeps coming back to The Firm series. She's not a gym person, so Anna Benson has become her workout partner.

"Sometimes I get up in the morning feeling grumpy," Gregus said. "Then I say, 'Come on Anna, let's do it.'"

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