Trainer Rhonda Murphy: Journey of transformation
Murphy helps a client stretch during a workout regimen. Photo by Dan Minkler.
Unless you knew better, you would never guess that a nondescript building on Bullard Avenue is where a special group of people has created a family made up of the broken and the bruised.
Many have battled serious illnesses, accidents and injuries. They come here – to Rhonda's Personal Training – not only to build their bodies back up, but also to cultivate a sense of community with those around them.
Rhonda Murphy, the leader of the pack, is a personal trainer and founder of the gym. She started the business 25 years ago after a much-loved firefighting career ended early.
“I used to volunteer at the PTA up in Three Rivers,” Murphy said. “I was driving back home in Sequoia National Park one night when a drunk driver hit my car and I broke my lower back.”
Murphy was extracted from her car by the same firefighters she worked with. They were crying. She had ruptured at least one disc in her lower back and her scalp had been peeled back.
Those were just two of her injuries.
“That’s why I like to work with the broken and the bruised,” Murphy said. “I was the broken and the bruised, too.”
As a firefighter for the California Fire Department, Murphy fought forest fires during the summers in Sequoia National Park. She moved on to the Hot Shots, now called the Interagency HotShot Crews, and eventually found herself working as a firefighter for the National Park Service.
“After the accident, I tried to go back to work, “ Murphy said. “I had to go back to training and pass the test, and I couldn’t do it. My back was too much of a problem.”
The setback was a big one. When she went to work as a firefighter in the early 1980s, she was the only woman to pass training and enter the advanced ranks of the HotShot crew.
When it became clear that firefighting was no longer a career option, Murphy sank into apathy and sadness. She gained weight, withdrew into herself and, as she likes to say, “threw my own little pity party.”
The party didn’t last long. Murphy, always interested in physical fitness, attended a bodybuilding show in Fresno in the early 1990s and saw a woman competing in the show. The woman was ripped – muscular, toned and the epitome of what it meant to be fit. Murphy was impressed and, after the show, went up to the woman and asked her one of the most important questions she would ever ask in her life:
“What would it take for someone like me to be that fit?”
The woman gave Murphy the once-over and a look. A look that said, “You could never.”
The look stuck with Murphy for a long time. Not long after, she decided to prove the woman wrong. Getting back into shape was key and, after working out for hours every day for almost a year, she lost more than 60 pounds and turned her body into one that was muscular, toned and strong.
Her passion for fitness compelled her to do more. Knowing that she wanted fitness to be part of her work, she became a trainer, working at other people’s gyms and helping others to reach their fitness goals.
In 1996, she opened her own gym, Rhonda’s Personal Training.
Business boomed within the first few years. Realizing she could no longer take on all her clients herself, she hired a few other trainers to help her handle her client load. The training staff has since expanded to nine other trainers.
“This business has never been just about me,” Murphy said. “My success is because I’ve wrapped myself around these amazing trainers and, over the years, we’ve all become good friends.”
Murphy’s friendships extend to her clients, as well. Last year, Murphy even traveled to Jamaica with a longtime client-turned-longtime friend.
Her personal touch with clients doesn’t just end with their physical fitness.
“She works with emotional people, too,” said Deborah Alfors, a client of one of Rhonda’s trainers for a year and a half. “I had just gone through a divorce and I found Rhonda to be very supportive with this new phase of my life.
“My trainer, April, has told me she isn’t going to let me quit.”
When Alfors started experiencing an unnamed health issue earlier this year, the first people she told were Rhonda, April and her friends at the gym.
“I didn’t want to share the news with too many people,” Alfors said. “They were very supportive and told me I could call them or text them anytime.
“Everything turned out OK, but they were a big support during that time.”
Even those who haven’t experienced illness or injury and are just interested in staying fit come here not only for the exercise equipment but also the emotional support.
“This place is perfect for someone like me,” said Brian Sanders, a client of Rhonda’s. “I’ve tried a number of larger gyms here in town and this one is unlike the others – it’s not a pick-up place.
“The people here are very supportive, and I’ve met a lot of good people here. There’s a great bunch of people here.”
It’s fitting that years after Rhonda met her fitness goals, she ran into the woman who gave her the dirty look at that bodybuilding competition all those years ago.
“Remember me?” Murphy asked her.
“Nope,” said the woman.
While it’s possible that the woman Murphy met years earlier who had inadvertently inspired her to get into shape just didn’t care enough to remember her, it can also be said that maybe Rhonda was just a totally different person physically than she used to be. Her transformation has been stunning – a fact which inspires her clients to meet their fitness goals, as well.
Ever modest, Murphy is quick to share the credit with her trainers.
“Just like it takes a village to raise a child, so it is with trying to run a little facility like we have,” she said. “We’re a family here, and sometimes it takes friends and family to make things happen.”
Written by Madeline Shannon, a graduate of Fresno State’s journalism program and works as a freelance writer for several publications. She is also an active blogger.