Triathlon and a great friend helped Kat leave an abusive marriage – Triathlete

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After arriving in America from Ukraine in 1999 as an exchange student, it wasn’t long before Kat* had “everything.” At least, that’s how it looked on the outside. A husband, a house, children, a car, an education. But Kat was trapped in an abusive marriage and it wasn’t until she discovered triathlon and community through the sport that she finally truly got a fresh start.

This Sunday, Kat will jump out of a boat and into San Francisco Bay to participate in Escape from Alcatraz. It will be nothing compared to the leap of faith Kat took in 2020: breaking free from the abuse she endured for twenty years.

From isolation to abuse

When Kat came to the United States, she didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak English. In a vulnerable state, with an overwhelming sense of isolation, she began dating someone who would become her husband. Although subtle at first, the cycle of abuse began with her being discouraged from going out and making friends and feeling like she couldn’t do anything right. She said she had become a captive in her own house.

“I tried to convince myself that it was OK,” she said. “But I was stuck. I wasn’t allowed to have any friends. I had no connections. Everyone thought I had this glamorous American dream: a car and a house, what a else could a girl dream?

In 2006, she thought the kids could fix the situation, or at least make things better, so they started a family.

“We had three children and there was no change,” she said. “I was still isolated. After the third child was born, I was working and basically a single parent because he was so absent. I still had no sense of community or friends.

Then, in 2014, while living in Louisiana, she discovered running.

“It was just time for me,” she said. “Without obligations, in no rush to pick up my kids, cook dinner or do the dishes.”

An angel

She was starting to gain momentum and independence from running, but then her husband decided — without warning or communication, she said — to quit his job and move to another state. She had to pick up the pieces, sell the house and move her three children across the country. “I was stuck again and too scared to disobey,” she said. “One way or another there would be punishment, so I sold the house and my mom helped us track it.”

In their new home, Kat joined a gym and hoped to continue running. On her first day there, a friendly woman approached her and introduced herself as Amy.

“She widened my circle of friends and made me see that there was more to life than I knew,” Kat said. “It reminded me of the old Kat – when I was in Ukraine. I got a glimpse of my old self, someone who loved challenges, loved setting goals, loved people.

Amy and Kat started training for the 5K and 10K races, and eventually Kat completed her first marathon in 2016, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Her husband, however, disapproved of her athletic endeavors and never praised her for her accomplishments. He thought she was selfish and it was a waste of time.

But Kat continued to improve. She practiced early, sometimes at 3:45 a.m., because that was the only time she had – and Amy would always be there, no matter what time. “She was always the one asking me, ‘What’s next, Kat?'” she said.

And that’s how the duo discovered triathlon.

In memory of Amy

In 2017, Kat’s husband left, without warning or communication, to pursue a new job in a new state, leaving her to sell the house again, move the family, and follow him. This time, however, she didn’t. This time, she stayed put. Kat filed for divorce, but since they lived in different states, it couldn’t be finalized.

She continued to train for triathlon, completing sprint and Olympic distance races. She and Amy have signed up for separate half-Ironman events. They would train together, then could support each other in their own races.

“Training was going really well,” Kat said. “I had banners made, maps printed, everything ready to go, then the day of our trip I got a call from Amy telling me she was on her way for emergency care. Amy still showed up even at -10 degrees F. I knew I could always count on this woman I knew something was seriously wrong.

Amy was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and had two to three months to live.

But she convinced Kat to continue competing in her half Ironman in North Carolina.

“I decided I had to race for her,” Kat said. “I went for a run and had his name on my forearm. That day was her first day of chemotherapy. Whenever I felt pain, I thought of her. I would be so grateful if my body would let me do that.

In March 2018, Amy passed away.

“It was through those long runs and those long bike rides, and being with Amy, that I developed confidence,” she said. “She made me realize what was going on was wrong, and always said, ‘Kat, you’re stronger than you think! Why are you allowing someone to be like that?’

It was a difficult time, however, and Kat was vulnerable. The seed of independence and strength had been planted, but when her husband came to visit, claiming he was ill and begging her to move the family to where he lived, she agreed.

“Part of me wanted to get out of this town, because every road and every hill reminded me of Amy,” Kat said.

Just as she had done in the past, Kat followed and moved her family to a new state. But this time it was different for her.

“At the time, there was no way to isolate myself,” she said. “I knew I could find my people.”

Soon after, Kat found a new community of triathlon friends and was inspired to sign up for her first Ironman. She told herself that if she finished Ironman, she would leave her husband.

In November 2019, Kat traveled to Cozumel. On a hot, humid day, she barely finished. She thought of Amy, and she thought of her own strength. As she walked mile after mile of the marathon, she imagined she was a little bird.

“With every step, I told myself that I was getting closer to him, like a little bird, and as soon as I got to the finish line, I would fly away from him,” she said.

Two weeks later, she left. She hired movers and planned her escape.

You can do hard things’

It was a difficult time, however. The day she moved out, her husband picked up the children from school and told them she was abandoning the family. Two years in court and $300,000 later, she lost custody of her three children.

“He hired the best attorney in the state and used triathlon training and Ironman against me in court,” she said. “He claimed it was selfish, time-consuming and expensive.”

At a time of incredible grief, Kat made the difficult decision to move again and start fresh. She started her own training business, hoping to give back to the sport that gave her so much.

“Maybe there are other people who are struggling and I could be their lifeline,” she said. “You can do difficult things; you’re not alone.”

For help or more information: the National Domestic Violence Helpline or call 1-800-799-SAFE

*To protect her identity, we only identify Kat by her first name.

Jessica Broderick contributed to this article.

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