Hamden gym owner’s story of loss and resilience inspires others to live powerfully

by Kristina Mendoza-Cabrera

We are more capable than we can even fathom or understand. We are more resilient than we know.— Christa Doran, founder of Tuff Girl Fitness

Dumbells and kettlebells. Sweat and signs. Chaos and accomplishment. This is the scene at Hamden’s Tuff Girl Fitness gym, and inspiration bleeds from Christa Doran, the gym owner and fitness trainer who had to learn her own lessons in the worst way imaginable.

The gym Doran built with her inspiration and commitment forged into a community. But in 2018, a personal tragedy rocked Doran to the point she would need that community to survive.

The rise of Tuff Girl Fitness

Doran, a 39-year-old wife and mother, founded Tuff Girl in 2011, just after the birth of her second child.

Originally from West Springfield, Massachusetts, Doran has been in the fitness field for a long time. She went to school for occupational therapy with the mindset that the two were similar.

“But (OT) didn’t fill me up in the same way fitness did,” she said.

Though she earned her Master’s of Science in OT, she found satisfaction running classes at the gym during her graduate years.

“I just felt super lit up in that space,” Doran said. “My true love is fitness. It has been since I was a little girl, but growing up you don’t say that you want to be an aerobics instructor.”

When she realized where her true passion lay, she began pursuing that path even when her professional life was momentarily put on hold.

After marrying her husband Mike Doran and giving birth to their first of three daughters, Livia, she left her job in OT to become a stay-at-home mom. It was not long before she missed working.

“I didn’t want to work when I had kids because I wanted to focus on my children, but I couldn’t help but feel like something was calling my name,” Doran said.

Three months after Livia was born, she decided to try something different. Being new to Hamden at the time, she didn’t have friends in the area.

“I wanted a community and a connection with women,” Doran said.

She started running group classes for women at East Rock Park in New Haven. She bought simple equipment and led group workouts. Women were even free to bring their babies.

“I thought it’d be a great way for me to meet people while also providing this service and building them up in a way that I didn’t see happening in gyms,” Doran said. “It was clearly filling a need that these women wanted. I wasn’t recreating the wheel, I was just delivering exercise in a way they had never seen before, which was from a place of positivity, support, love and empowerment.”

Through word of mouth, the unofficial business of Tuff Girl grew over the next 18 months.

With the help of her business-savvy husband, Doran set to work on this new goal. Mike, who has experience in business as well as a degree in exercise science, helped her to find a physical space, get the lease, licensing and registration.

When Doran, who had been pregnant during the whole process, was ready to have her second child, Mike decided to leave his job in surgical sales to join the Tuff Girl team full time.

Together, they have been growing the business since 2011. Doran has hired and trained a number of coaches and Mike now leads co-ed barbell classes and programming.

“Throughout the gym, strength is our foundation,” Mike said. “It’s about finding the joy that comes with being strong, living life to the fullest and using strength as a way to do things that are important to you whether it’s playing with your children, or lifting a weight you never thought you could.”

A gym becomes a community: ‘People really support one another here’

It was this atmosphere of never-ending support and empowerment that drew in coaches like 26-year-old Hillary Maxson. Having started as a Tuff Girl intern three years ago, Maxson is now a full-time coach.

“I feel so grateful for finding her and this place,” Maxson said. “Christa’s taught me that I don’t have to become somebody I’m not, that I can just fully be my own authentic self and not mold myself into what people think a typical fitness coach and trainer should be.”

Maxson is just one of the hundreds of lives Doran has changed through her hard work and dedication.

Barbara Esposito of Hamden is a Tuff Girl member who has been going to the gym four to five days a week for the past nine years. As someone who has trained with Doran since 2010, a year before the gym’s opening -- Esposito has come to know her on a more personal level.

Tuff Girl Fitness Member Barbara Esposito lifting kettlebells  Photo by Brigid Hect Photography

Tuff Girl Fitness Member Barbara Esposito lifting kettlebells

Photo by Brigid Hect Photography

“I love Christa. She’s inspiring, she’s brave and she’s kind,” Esposito said. “She and I have known each other for nine years and we’ve grown a lot together in terms of loving our bodies.”

Esposito credits Doran for teaching her that being beautiful doesn’t come in the form of skinny.

As someone who battled anorexia from a young age, Doran knows all about the difficulties of self-love and acceptance.

“I did not love or respect or appreciate my body,” Doran said. “I was so consumed with trying to change my body in a way that I thought would bring me happiness. No matter the weight or size I got down to, I was not happy, and I had no idea what I was capable of because I was letting food and obsessive exercise consume my thoughts.”

This image is a far cry from the Doran, chiseled and fit, many people know today.

“The girl who was 15 and starving herself could never have believed that she had built something like this,” Doran said. “I did not realize how strong, or capable or powerful I was, and I think that looking back -- that’s my mission. It’s to help women realize how amazing they are.”  

Clients like Esposito can attest to this.

“There is a thread of empowerment and feminism that’s weaved through here,” Esposito said. “It’s not a competitive environment. People really support one another here,” Esposito said.

Tuff Girl has more 550 clients that train regularly and sees approximately 4,000 visits a month.

Needing Tuff Girl in the face of tragedy

Despite the success of Doran’s business and career, the past two years have brought her personal life an insufferable amount of pain and hardship.  

The horrific reality hit in May 2018 when Doran’s 6-year-old daughter, Lea, lost her battle to brain cancer. She died just nine months after her diagnosis August 2017.

Doran leaned on her immediate and Tuff Girl family during this time of extreme grieving.

“They [her clients] really supported us through Lea’s sickness and afterward,” she said. “They would cook, come to every fundraiser, bring cards, wine, chocolate, hugs. They were really there.”

Nearly a year has gone by since Lea’s death and Doran continues to be a pillar of courage.  

”Christa is strong, of course in the physical sense, but also in the mental sense,” Mike said. “Even with everything we’ve been through, she still shows up every day as a strong mom for our girls and as a strong leader here in the gym.”

Returning to work just three months after Lea’s death, Doran said her work has given her a small reprieve from the pain.

“Pushing the sadness to the corner of my brain for an hour because I’m fully invested here was a nice distraction,” she said. “It’s because I love it and because I feel it’s really important work.”

In addition to her job, Doran found solace in other ways. Around the time of Lea’s diagnosis, she started a blog called “Lessons from Lea,” where she could pour her heart out in an honest and unfiltered fashion.

”It was so therapeutic and healing for me,” Doran said. “I realized every time I hit send, I felt better. It was like a mini-therapy session.”

The reactions the blog received shot far beyond her expectations. People were grateful for letting them so deep into her soul.

“I literally put the ugly out there and the response was really incredible,” Doran said. “I got so many emails saying ‘Thank you for saying how I’m feeling because, me too. You made me feel not alone.’ And that’s powerful when you can connect with people in pain.”

“Lessons from Lea” may have started as a way to cope with Lea’s death, but it has since become an outlet for Doran when she feels the need to write.

“When I have something to say or when I have a story to tell that I think could help somebody, I want to say it,” Doran said.

Doran hopes to one day write a memoir about her family, her work and of course, Lea, from whom she said learned so much.

“She taught me how to love, and she taught me how to be brave because she faced really horrible things as a 6-year-old. And she did it bravely,” Doran said through tears. “If she can go through all that, I can certainly show up to life every day however I am, whether it’s mad, sad, angry or awesome, and give the best I have on that day.”

Even through her devastating loss came a lesson about herself and her own strength.

“I endured something I never thought I could,” she said. “Pain changes you. It shapes you. But then we also have a choice about how we continue to live our lives.”

Doran has made the choice to continue living her life in the most meaningful way she knows how.

By being there for the people and the things that matter the most.

Messages about love, strength, empowerment and self-worth are all ones she relays to both her clients and her girls on a daily basis.

“We have to give ourselves permission to be wherever and whoever we are today and let that be enough,” she said. “It has to be enough.”

For more information about Tuff Girl Fitness, click here.
To read Christa’s blog, go to Lessons from Lea