BRANFORD - For most of this past decade, workout fanatics on the Shoreline have flocked to Lisa Peterson, the charismatic boot camp trainer with a promise to get anyone and everyone into “the best shape of their lives.” As the classes, with members commonly crowding every inch of her bare-bones studio, attested, she delivered.
What few, if any, suspected was that behind that booming success, behind her colorful off-color drill sergeant demeanor, she was struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction.
Sometime in late 2016, a fellow trainer asked what was wrong with her eyes. “They were just black,” Peterson recalled in a recent interview. “I was drinking. I was doing coke.”
“It was a dire situation,” said Allison Maloney, a longtime family friend and Peterson’s business manager.
Peterson, a 2015 inductee into the West Haven Hall of Fame for her athletic exploits in volleyball, basketball, and softball, said she started drinking after the drowning death of her 4-year-old son Tristan in September 2011.
“I had a drink at night and then it got to be a habit because I didn’t know how else to deal with it,” she said.
Gradually, she drank earlier in the day and then later at night, and “before you knew it, there was no gap,” she said.
Before her sister Stacy Defaranos checked her into a rehab facility for 38 days in early January 2017, she’d been introduced to cocaine.
When she came out of rehab, she learned that her ex-wife had been granted custody of her three kids. She went straight back to the studio.
She wasn’t ready. Two weeks out of rehab, she relapsed. “For a week it was like I let out the Tasmanian devil I’d caged up for 38 days,” she said.
That was the last relapse. Her sober date is March 8, 2017. She’s been going to AA meetings ever since.
She was going to meetings but she still, as she put it, felt “like a fish out of water. I was so full of myself, so cocky, my mindset was ‘I can’t believe you all survived without me,’ when I should have thanked my trainers for keeping the studio going while I was gone.”
Soon she learned they were working out at another studio and members were joining them. In late May 2017, she abruptly announced she was closing her East Industrial Road studio, leaving those still training with her confused, adrift and furious.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I didn’t know how to deal with all the anger and sadness without drinking and I didn’t want to drink.”
She had no plan. “I’d burned bridges with almost everyone, I didn’t have my kids, I didn’t have a job to go to, money, anything, I had nothing.”
That was rock bottom.
She rented a cabin at Hammonasset. “Being on the beach, watching the water, living with nothing, that was how I came to find peace,” she said.
With that newfound calm, she felt a need to work, she said. She reached out to a friend at Alcoholics Anonymous, Rick Delvalle, and got a job managing one of his A New Beginning Recovery houses. She went to meetings three or four times a day. She took jobs pulling weeds, planting bulbs, picking up dog droppings.
“It humbled me,” she said. “I needed to be knocked down, right-sized.”
One day, she was painting a house with Delvalle when she heard herself asking, “what am I going to do with my life?”
“And Rick said, like it was the most obvious thing, ‘you’re going to open back up,’” she recalled. “And then we went back to painting.”
That planted a seed, it seems. A few months later, she was having lunch with her daughter Gabby at Lynn’s Deli in Branford when she saw a For Lease sign on an adjacent building on Sylvia Drive.
“I had almost no income but it came back to me what Rick told me,” she said.
The owner was offering a five-year lease.
She went to her friend Maura “Mo” Petrosino, owner of JoBella Hair Salon in Branford. She helped her with her business plan and with negotiating her lease.
“I knew the positive impact Lisa could have on people was bigger than her problems,” said Petrosino, who’s trained with Peterson since 2011.
Peterson’s older sister Debbie Del Toro took out a substantial loan. It wasn’t enough. She still needed to convert the building into a studio, install a handicapped bathroom and light posts, plant trees for zoning, and get new equipment.
She despaired. “I’m going to meetings, I’m doing the steps, and I still didn’t know what to do,” she said.
That was when her sister suggested they go fishing. “It came to me when I was out there, that I had to reach out to people for help,” she said.
She texted former clients, offering them 1- or 2-year memberships if they paid up front, promising to pay them back in the first year. Some came through. Some said no. She kept going to meetings, kept doing her steps, kept believing, as she put it, that “everything will always be okay, just do the next right thing.”
Since opening in June 2018, membership has grown exponentially, with everyone who paid it forward having been paid back, according to Maloney.
“She’s still the same inspiring trainer who pushes you further than anyone else, but she’s way more engaged with each person,” said longtime member Janine Vitiello. “She teaches six classes a day but she never seems to get tired. It’s like she’s feeding off all our energy.”
That’s no surprise to Peterson.
“The point of getting people into the best shape of their lives is not about making anybody look better,” Peterson said, who’s regained custody of her children. “It’s about making people feel better about themselves in their lives.
“That’s what fuels me. That’s what keeps me going. I had to go through everything I did to see that.”
Lisa’s Uncensored Bike & Bootcamp Studio is on 10 Sylvia Drive in Branford. lisasboot.com; 203-738-9658.