Her career in law enforcement at a crossroad, Karla Medina's life was flourishing in new areas.
Medina was a Hartford police sergeant, but she was finding fulfillment as fitness instructor and motivational speaker. She spoke to her husband, Richard, about her dream of opening her own studio, a space she envisioned as a community for growth.
"It's like a butterfly inside of a jar … my creativity, my passion was being subdued," Medina said.
Five years ago, Medina opened Sudor Taino Group Fitness studio in West Hartford. Two years ago, she retired after 20 years with the Hartford Police Department.
At 43, Medina is no longer a butterfly in a jar. She teaches an array of fitness classes at her studio on New Park Avenue and mentors clients on training and nutrition, both in person and through her studio's Facebook page.
To her clients at the studio — her tribe, as they call themselves — Medina is more than just a fitness instructor.
"Karla is an angel here on earth," said Hebron resident Rossella Hara, who has been training with Medina for 10 years. "She is here to achieve her life's purpose and that is to touch the lives of as many people as she can globally. Through social media, YouTube, conferences and workshops, she is well on her way to achieving this. ... She provides us with all the tools we need and reminds us that there is no excuse to [not] achieving our goals. Karla plants seeds of growth and evolution."
In addition to conducting workshops and seminars, often at schools with both students and teachers, Medina remains connected to Hartford. She ran the Police Athletic League (PAL) and cultivated the growth of the program, and she continues to work with the Police Officers Training Council.
She recently led a drive through her studio to collect Home Depot gift cards for the group Puerto Rico Strong, which delivered the cards to those in need of home repairs in the wake of Hurricane Maria. It was an opportunity to tap into her growing community of more than 140 members.
She also has written 10 chapters so far of a book that she hopes will offer a "spiritual foundation" to physical and emotional fitness. The book is not a memoir, but in it she draws upon her life experiences — growing up in Hartford, working as a patrol officer and detective, working in the homicide division and in gang intelligence — and she includes personal stories. She said that as an officer she had a gun put to her head and experienced near-death experiences.
Her spiritual awakening, she said, came just a few years into her police career. She reached into a vehicle as she attempted to turn the key in the ignition. A 13-year-old sitting in the passenger's seat put the car in gear, dragging Medina as her hand was tangled in the steering wheel.
"If it weren't for my partner at the time, I would have been dragged to my death," Medina said.
The ligaments in her hand were torn and a visible scar is a reminder of the experience. Medina was raised Catholic, but never felt spiritually connected until that day.
The experience gave her a renewed purpose that carried her through her years on the Hartford PD and sustains her today.
"That grounded me in a way that maybe other people live a whole lifetime before they can get grounded," Medina said. "I'm not saying I'm better, but my life changed for me. I learned not to basically say I work for the chief of police. I work for the man upstairs. So whatever I did, I did it my best."
It shaped how she interacted with people. She mentored kids in Hartford, both through her work on gang intelligence and through PAL. Even after she was assigned to booking late in her career, she sought to bring a human touch to her job.
"I would say to them, 'What got you here in the first place?' and try to talk to them," she said.
At workshops or seminars, Medina tells dramatic life-and-death stories but also relates to her audience through everyday challenges.
"The focus of most of the workshops would be building bridges like a warrior," Medina said. "It's more like, how to be a warrior in everyday life and really solidify for people what a warrior is. Because a lot people don't consider themselves warriors, but there's everyday warriors. Managing to pick up three different kids, balancing the checkbook ... picking up the laundry, cooking, then — woosh — plopping down at 11 o'clock. I'd call that a warrior any day.
"And not to minimize real warriors in war, but to draw a line for people where they can understand, the struggle is real. That's really where the focus is."
Hara, a seventh-grade language arts teacher, first encountered Medina at Big Sky Fitness in Newington. She has been part of an array of classes, groups and workshops with her over the past decade, losing 60 pounds and now feeling that at 49 she is the healthiest she has ever been.
Medina is the reason.
"She sees goodness and potential in everyone," Hara said. "To me she is all-knowing in that she has the ability to assess and read the energy, needs and abilities of everyone in a room. She gives you what you need at just the right time. She is the master of tough love and genuine love. She may push you, guide you or walk beside you to support your journey to greater health and well-being. Her words are the truth spoken through experience. She always asks me, 'What's your plan?' Knowing that if I don't have one then I'm bound to not succeed. Planning is key."
At her studio, Medina is loud and passionate. She expects her clients to give maximum effort, so she is conscious of the example she sets.
"What I basically tell them to do is, when they come in through that door, they're a family," said Medina, who has a 15-year-old daughter. "It doesn't matter. At the end of the day, you could be the one supporting or you could be the one who needs to be supported. I scream it into them. I talk to them the entire time we're working out. … I'm never quiet."
But her counseling is more than screaming. She says she is shoulder-to-shoulder with her clients, not on a pedestal.
"First and foremost, she's just a very genuine person," said Leslie McCarter, who began attending classes at Sudor Taino in February. "What you see is what you get. You might meet her and think she can't possibly be this nice, but she really is. She's also very much dedicated to insuring that we are able to really fulfill and reach our authentic selves. So she'll push really hard and be very supportive, very caring. The best thing that I've found about Karla is that it's a tribe and it's family and it's diverse. You see that often and that's in no small part because of her."
McCarter, of Windsor, has experienced Medina as a fitness instructor and a motivational speaker. She met her last year at the Future Firefighter Camp at The Village for Family and Children's Community Life Skills for Girls program, where McCarter served as director. Medina spoke to the girls, ages 11 to 19, and left an impression by recounting stories about her own life and encouraging the young women.
Earlier this year, McCarter came to Medina's studio in search of help. McCarter, who describes herself as morbidly obese, had just lost someone close to her to breast cancer and she needed guidance.
Since Feb. 15, McCarter has lost more than 150 pounds. She credits Medina for helping her in all aspects — body, mind and spirit.
"Without the benefit of any medication, without any type of surgery ... this is strictly working with her," said McCarter, who visits the studio three or four times per week. "She has been my personal trainer. ... She's just really provides a network of support. You never feel alone. I'm been to, I don't know, how many gyms? I don't know how many diets that I've been on. Honestly, this is the first place I've ever gone to where I feel like, wow, I'm a part of something that's bigger than just me."
That's what Medina had in mind when she first conjured up the idea of creating her own space. Her life experience, from a childhood in the city through her years on police force, has shaped a unique perspective.
And while she is using that perspective to touch other lives, she remains self-aware and appreciative. When asked about the trauma she experienced in law enforcement, she re-frames the question.
"I believe if I hadn't gone through that I wouldn't be where I am today, I wouldn't be here and I also wouldn't be in my frame of mind … and being so humble," Medina said. "I'm humbled by my life. I live an incredible life, inspiring people every day."