Peloton's Selena Samuela On Recovering — and Flourishing — After Unthinkable Heartbreak
If you think you've heard most of Samuela's inspiring story on Peloton, you're so very wrong.
One of the first things you'll learn about Selena Samuela when you start taking her Peloton classes is that she's lived a million lives. Well, to be fair, the first thing you'll actually learn is that she can probably kick your ass on the treadmill and on the mat, but you'll love her for it. And as you're working out to the sounds of her carefully curated pop-country playlist, Samuela may also sprinkle in tidbits about her life here and there, perhaps prompting you to wonder, "how has this fitness instructor done so much in one short lifetime?"
"My story is so funny when it's told in little blurbs," Samuela tells Shape with a laugh. "Like, 'oh you've lived a million lives,' and I truly have. But when you hear the story of how it all happened, it all makes sense."
In Peloton sessions, Samuela frequently mentions spending the first few years of her life in Italy (her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 11 years old). Samuela also waxes poetic about her time in Hawaii, where she moved to attend college. There was also a dog-walking business Samuela started in between her stint in stunt-driving school and her run as an amateur boxer. It' a lot to take in, but as Samuela explains, it all played out just as it should have, given the circumstances of her journey.
In the three years since joining Peloton as a running and strength coach, Samuela has made a name for herself as a multifaceted powerhouse (oh, and ICYDK, she's also a golf-loving marathoner who not only speaks four languages but is also a passionate environmental advocate). But there's more to Samuela's journey that many may not know. In fact, the newly-engaged coach is a survivor of unthinkable heartbreak — but is also a true believer in resilience.
"I'm not ashamed of my journey and more than that, I'm really proud of my hard work," says Samuela. Here's her story.
Growing Up Between Multiple Identities
Although Samuela's die-hard fans know her life in snippets, they haven't heard the full story. While Samuela has fond memories of her early years in Italy, they weren't perfect. "My childhood, while still wonderful, was also very difficult," she says. "We moved back and forth between the United States and Italy and finally came to the States when I was in fifth grade and I really struggled to understand my identity. I was so young, like, 'am I Italian? Am I American?' I did my best when we came to the States to lose my accent really fast because I didn't want to be seen as an outsider or as different."
Once her family settled in Elmira, New York, (which, by car, is about 231 miles from New York City) Samuela says there was "a decent share of drama" that occurred at home. Though Samuela refrains from delving into details, she says the experience inspired a "sharp mistrust in authority" and a rebellious nature. "I was also a super nerdy kid and I read a lot of books," says Samuela. "I would read late into the night and hide the light under my covers. I was an absolute nerd and was also bullied a bit in school. I wasn't very social. I was definitely anti-establishment early on and had rebel vibes." (Related: The Benefits of Books You Need to Read to Believe)
Samuela was also fiercely independent and desperate to get out of Elmira. When she had the opportunity to attend college in Hawaii, she jumped at the chance. "I worked full-time off-campus and lived with local people in a shared household," she says. "I surfed every day. I was living this dream and those were some of the best years of my life, but I always had this itch that I wanted to be a performer — I had this dream of being a writer, director, producer, actor."
Samuela eventually left school and headed to New York City to attend classes at the prestigious Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which counts Bryce Dallas Howard and Salma Hayek among its alumni. "That's where I met Lexi."
Finding First Love — and Devastating Loss
Lexi was the name of the cool, mysterious New York native Samuela fell for, and the person with whom she counts as her first real-adult relationship. A talented actor and a gifted singer, Lexi, much like Samuela, spoke multiple languages, five to be exact. "I spoke four, so I was like, super impressed," says Samuela with a chuckle. But Lexi also battled depression and addiction, and his well-being steadily declined over the course of the pair's four-year relationship. "He really, really struggled with mental illness," she says. "I had taken on that caretaker role and lost myself trying to care for him when what I needed was to take care of myself. I was just a baby; we were both just kids, it was like our early to mid-20s when we had this relationship."
Lexi died in 2014. He had been living in a rehab facility in Los Angeles when Samuela got the news. At the time, she was still living in the quaint New York City apartment they shared for four years. "I remember being so mad at God at the time," she says. "Like, 'really? This is how you're gonna teach me this lesson?' There was no quick or simple solution to alleviate the devastation Samuela felt. "It was so hard," she says. "For the whole year after Lexi died, it was like, 'Whose nightmare am I waking up in every day? Did I will my nightmare into existence? What the hell is going on?'"
Over the course of that year, Samuela increasingly felt like she'd fully lost her sense of self. But after 12 months of floating in and out of each day, a switch inside her flipped. "There came a point in my journey with grief where I had to say, 'I'm not falling into the trap of self-pity,'" she says. "I was like, enough is enough, I need a change of pace and some recentering. I was just feeling truly at the bottom of my well but I wasn't going to allow myself to give up. I was done with wallowing and knew I had to pick my ass up and move. It was one of those aha moments, like, there's nothing here for me. This is stagnant. This is not progress, this isn't life; this is existing. I wanted to live."
Picking Up the Pieces and Finding Fitness
Samuela literally got moving and booked a ticket to Southeast Asia. She met up with her best friend from Hawaii in Bali and spent her days surfing, meditating, and reading as many books as she could get her hands on. From there, Samuela began to recalibrate and felt she was returning to the person she was before grief has consumed her. Soon, Samuela was itching to return to New York to pursue her dream of performing. But upon moving back to the city, she swapped previous server gigs for a side hustle that aligned more with the healthy habits she cultivated during her travels. (Related: How to Use Travel to Spark a Personal Breakthrough)
"I started a dog walking business because I love animals!" she says. "And I tried to get my foot in the door with Hollywood by doing stunts — I went to stunt driving school and worked on perfecting my fight technique because that's what I was told was important to do. I'd always been so good at being physical, so that's what led me to the world of fitness." (Related: How Lily Rabe Trained to Be Her Own Stunt Double In Her New Thriller Series)
Samuela continued going to auditions in hopes of landing an acting role, but the fitness routine she'd picked up to supplement performance skills soon became her central focus. She walked into Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn for fight training and instead forged an unexpected family. "I was doing it to advance my career as a performer, but it did so much more for me," she says. "I found this awesome community — like a tough ass sisterhood."
Samuela's coach, Ronica Jeffrey, was a world champion boxer, as well as other Gleason's regulars, such as Heather Hardy, Alicia "Slick" Ashley, Alicia "The Empress" Napoleon, and Keisher "Fire" McLeod. "They were lifting each other and you just saw this amazing camaraderie of badass women absolutely crushing it," says Samuela. "Also there's this fierce independence in the sport — you're in there and you're alone and there's no one you can rely on and you cannot quit. The only way to get out of a fight is to fight it out. The only way out is through. It's crazy because they say that stuff in therapy, but it also applies to sport. So you might lose but you have to take the loss as a lesson and come back stronger for the next fight." (Related: Why You Need to Start Boxing ASAP)
Samuela's newfound friends convinced her to compete. "And that's how I became an amateur boxer," she laughs. " I felt like it was mirroring so many of my experiences, maybe even subconsciously just giving me internal validation. Like, 'yeah, you can do this tough stuff. You've always done this tough stuff — this is who you are." (Also read: How My Boxing Career Gave Me the Strength to Fight On the Frontlines As a COVID-19 Nurse)
Regular training and competing not only helped Samuela rediscover the spark she lost mourning Lexi, but it changes the trajectory of her career and her life. "I started working in a boutique fitness studio after that and doing one-on-one personal training and that's how I ended up getting recruited to work at Peloton," she says. Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy had been an avid attendee of Samuela's fitness classes and encouraged her to audition for the company. "It was like a total Cinderella moment like, 'the glass shoe fits!' It made so much sense. And I knew I totally rocked that audition. It was like, hell yeah, I know how to work a camera, I've been through some serious life lessons, I know how to motivate, I've been down and out, I've risen from the ashes of the dumpster fire that was my life — I know how to talk to people and inspire them because I've been there." (Related: For Jess Sims, Her Rise to Peloton Fame Was All About the Right Timing)
Samuela fully immersed herself into the new role at Peloton and says she wasn't necessarily looking for love in the years after Lexi's death. And when a friend set her up with tech CEO Matt Virtue in 2018, Samuela wasn't exactly stoked. In fact, she says she "made assumptions before meeting up" with him. "I was expecting that I would probably dislike him," recalls Samuela. Fast forward three years later and the two are happily engaged.
"I'm almost gonna cry, because of how joyful [my love story] is," says Samuela. "I'm so grateful for my journey and I'm so grateful that I have this man in my life and I'm engaged to be married to the man who's going to be my life partner. What I went through allowed me to become my own favorite version of myself and I believe it takes having a really good relationship with yourself to have a good relationship with anyone else. You have to trust yourself and have grace for yourself in order to have grace for someone else. You have to hold space for yourself in order if you want to truly hold space for someone else or else you're going to lose yourself, which I had to learn the hard way." (Related: This Woman Perfectly Explained the Difference Between Self-Love and Body Positivity)
Samuela isn't shy to admit that the mourning process was grueling, and how grief doesn't necessarily go away. For years, Samuela says she kept "little stars and mementos" of Lexi as "a way to keep him alive in my memory a little longer." Samuela also couldn't bring herself to remove his name from their joint bank account or delete his number from her phone for five years. But with time and ruthless effort, the pain subsided and made space for overwhelming joy. Drawing on her own experience of love, loss, and immense resilience, Samuela offers three strategies for anyone weathering a particularly tough season of life:
- Go back to your roots: "Find something that once brought you joy that was healthy for you," says Samuela. "What was something that truly — even if it was in your childhood — that made you feel like your favorite version of yourself? I use 'your favorite version of yourself instead of 'best self' because 'best' is so arbitrary. What is 'best self?' Best to who? 'Favorite' is your favorite. What is something you love?"
- Cultivate a community rooted in movement: "Moving is so important," says Samuela. "Maybe you're someone who's not into fitness or you've never taken a class, so maybe it's not that, but it's going on a power walk. And maybe you can't do it yourself, so you find an accountability buddy. Finding a community or an accountability buddy to give you a high five for taking that jog or going on that run — that's huge." (See: Why Having a Fitness Buddy Is the Best Thing Ever)
- Try something brand new — even if it scares you: "Maybe you go back to the familiar stuff and you're like, 'ugh,'" says Samuela. "Then it's like, alright, try something new. Just do it, because you never know what you're going to find. Don't let the fear of the unknown keep you from doing something you might be curious about."
As Samuela herself continues to evolve, she still draws on those three strategies regularly. (Golf, for example, is her "new" venture — her fiancé even proposed on the fairway.) But even as she moves forward in her journey, Samuela still has a grasp on the lessons from the past. And for those coping with a tragedy or a challenging situation, Samuela implores them to keep going. (Related: The Healing Power of Yoga: How Practicing Helped Me Cope with Pain)
"If you're going through some s—t, your story isn't over yet," she says. "Your story is not over yet. There is a new beginning if you want it. There's a way to flip the script. You might feel helpless in the moment and honestly, maybe in some ways you are. But you are never hopeless. Hope lives inside of you that is always a fire worth feeding."