Gianna Canale, a 2018 graduate of Cedar Creek High, recently finished up her first season as a high school assistant coach at rival Absegami. (South Jersey Glory Days photos/Sully)

By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
On the morning of Dec. 10, 2022, Gianna and Kendra Canale took a ride to a swim meet, like they had thousands of times growing up. This time was a little different, though, because once the sisters got to the Hess School in Mays Landing, they split off and went to opposite sides of the pool.
For the first time in their lives, the pair were opponents and not teammates or sisters. Kendra, 16 years old, is an outstanding junior at Cedar Creek while older sister Gianna, 22, is a 2022 graduate of Juniata College and is spending this winter as a volunteer assistant coach with the Absegami swimming program.
“It was a lot of fun coming into (that meet). It was great to see her swim,” said Gianna, who was a star swimmer herself at Cedar Creek before graduating in 2018 and going on to swim and play soccer at Juniata. “I know I was nervous and I’m sure she was, too. I was nervous about coaching at first, but the kids are great and the other coaches have been awesome. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know everyone. It was a little bit weird at first, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
Swimming has been a big family bond for the Canale sisters and their parents for more than two decades now. It all started because parents Sue and Mark wanted their three daughters — Gianna, Marlee, who is 19 and a swimmer at the University of Maine, and Kendra — to learn how to swim. Sue and Mark are both avid outdoors people and wanted to be able to enjoy things like swimming and kayaking without fear that they were putting their kids in danger.
“We just didn’t want them to drown; that’s how this all started,” Sue said.
Little did they know back then that swimming would soon consume their lives all year long.
“We’re around water all the time so we wanted them to be safe and enjoy their time around the water rather than be clinging to us. Plus, it was something I could do to bond with them was to take them to swimming lessons,” Mark said. “Originally, we weren’t interested in competitive swimming, but Gianna got into her first meet and ever since then it just grew. The other two expected to be able to do it, too. Through Gianna’s love and desire for the sport it grew in them, and they took it one step further. It’s been a great ride. It’s also been great for us to learn about swimming because we weren’t swimmers growing up. So it’s also been a learning experience for us.”
Added Gianna, “it just started as swimming lessons then grew into competitive swimming, and we’re all still involved with it. Marlee is at the University of Maine and Kendra is at Cedar Creek still. It started with Marlee and I just so we knew how to swim, but then we got roped into competitive swimming. It’s been fun.”
Kendra said it’s been great having two older sisters who are competitive swimmers. She strives to be as good as them, but also she has a couple of confidants outside the pool if something is going on in her life.
“It really gives me something to reach for. I don’t really like being in the shadows, so it makes me think, ‘this is where I could be,’ and I try to be just like them,” Kendra said. “They’ve always been there for me and have been great mentors. If I had a problem in the pool, or outside of it, they’ve always been there and have understood. They’ve definitely helped me become the best person I can be. It was a little crazy growing up, and with all the swimming we did we made our parents run around a lot, but they love knowing that we get joy out of it.”
“I love it. I love how supportive they are of one another. This whole meet (back on Dec. 10) I was texting Marlee to tell her what Kendra did. As a parent, that’s what you want to see — them supporting each other no matter what. We’re really lucky to have kids who really enjoy each other’s company and will support each other no matter where they are, through everything,” Sue said. “Swimming is such a mental sport and they are always there to lift each other up. As a parent, you really can’t ask for anything more.”
“They each have certain personality traits that stand out, as it is with any siblings,” Mark added. “But it’s a neat combination and a great support system. They are able to support each other through tough times and good times.”
Gianna graduated with a degree in wildlife conservation and she’s still searching for her calling in the professional field, so while she figures out what kind of career path she’s going to take she said she loves still being involved with swimming.
“I’ve always thought, even when she played soccer, that she had that type of personality and she’d be great as a coach. There’s just something about her personality. She’s the first born, so you can kind of see that. She loves this sport so much and when this opportunity came up she jumped on it,” said Sue.
“I can’t stay away from the pool,” Gianna said. “I’m always nervous when Kendra or Marlee have meets. I love watching and I couldn’t stay away. I want to get back in the water and swim. When the meets began this year, I was like, ‘man, I really want to be back racing again!’ It’s just a different perspective trying to take what I’ve been taught and what I’ve learned to try to help these younger kids. That’s been a big part of the fun — this was something that I enjoyed doing, so how can I make it fun for these kids?”
“It’s really cool to see her have a chance to continue her love for the sport,” Kendra added. “She’s able to bring her knowledge to that team. (Having sisters who swim) has been very important in my life. It’s made me realize how much I love this sport and how much I want to be like them and make them proud.”
For Absegami coach Jim Winkler, having an assistant with the kind of talent Gianna has is a Godsend. It means at practices he can have her work with the high level swimmers while he gets a chance to give more time to the novice swimmers.
“It’s been great. I’ve managed to build a coaching staff where I can manage and let them do a lot of the coaching. Gianna is somebody is somebody who has such a high level of swimming IQ that I can hand her some of the upper level kids — she swam at a much higher level than I ever did,” he said. “I already have some great coaches for the newer kids, and now I’m able to manage my whole pool. It’s really a dream for a head coach to have young people come out as volunteers, like Gianna. We couldn’t ask for anything better.”
For a program like Absegami, which is trying to build itself up to be competitive with some great Cape-Atlantic League programs like Ocean City, Egg Harbor Township, Mainland and Vineland, having former swimmers in the district — which includes Oakcrest and Cedar Creek — come back to coach can be a stepping stone to greater success.
“It’s good for the whole district. The Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District just got a big referendum passed and the real goal is to get kids to stay in this district and not go elsewhere. Families like them who have a presence in both schools and have relationships can really help us do that,” Winkler explained. “Kendra swims for Cedar Creek and I’m always quick to seek out her dad (who works at Absegami) to praise her. We get to cheer each other on throughout the season. The two coaching staffs work together at professional development seminars and we’re all friendly, so it’s great to see these kinds of families who cross between multiple schools.”
“The most important thing is they have all been a part of this school district, and we support the district. It’s been a great growing experience for all of them,” Mark said. “We’ve been a big part of the swimming program in this district for a while now and it’s really neat. Swimming has been such a big part of our lives.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays

Kendra Canale, an outstanding junior swimmer, helped lead Cedar Creek to the sectional finals this winter.