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Endurance Athletes Are Finally Talking About Domestic Violence

With recent cases of runners and triathletes being murdered by their partners, conversations are starting in women's training groups about domestic violence. Here's what you should know.

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Domestic Violence Month is not one that typically pops up on endurance athletes’ radar. It doesn’t, at first, seem like it fits amid conversations of swim, bike, and run. But with Olympic runner Agnes Tirop murdered by her husband earlier in the month, female athletes have been opening up in Facebook groups, on long runs, and among teammates about their previously hidden experiences.

Back in February, triathlete Mary Knott was also murdered by her ex-boyfriend, another triathlete. Mary was a triathlon friend of mine. We had raced Kona together, biked up Mt. Lemmon in a snowstorm, gone through epic training camps and epic meltdowns. For a lot of the triathlon community it was hard to imagine that someone who had finished Ultraman and completed marathon swims could be a victim of domestic violence. But that’s precisely what has prompted so many to start talking about it now.

“Domestic violence does not discriminate. It crosses all demographic boundaries and can impact people regardless of their ethnicity, socio-economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender, age, religion, or fitness level,” said Jane Randel, a domestic violence advocate and founder of NO MORE. “While endurance athletes may be at their physical peak, they are not immune to being victimized by their partner or spouse and in some cases do not even realize they are being abused.”

What Randel means is that often control and manipulation by a partner starts as something smaller and isn’t always recognized as abuse—controlling where someone can go, their money, their phone and communication, what they’re allowed to wear, and making them feel bad about themselves. That can escalate fairly quickly.

“This can be so silent and so hidden,” said Heidi Videto, Knott’s closest friend. Videto, who also works at a police department in Arizona, wrote a blog post this week, as part of Domestic Violence Month, about what domestic violence really looks like and what her teammates, friends, and training partners should know.

“I’ve been shocked at the people who have messaged me since my post and come out with their stories—and given my circles, it’s mostly athletes,” she said. “Our preconceived notion is this doesn’t happen to us. This is a Lifetime movie thing, this happens to other people, but really there is no discrimination in this at all.”

While sports like football and hockey are more commonly associated with domestic violence and there are no stats that break down victims by activity, about one in four women and one in nine men experience intimate partner violence in the U.S.—meaning the odds are you know someone.

It’s also become clear that often our training partners are the people who see us when we’re too tired to pretend anymore, and who know what’s happening in our lives when no one else does. And so it is often our long run buddies who are uniquely positioned to have that conversation.

“If you think something is wrong, it probably is, so friends and family should trust their gut,” Randel said. Signs might include excessive jealousy or control from the partner, consistently putting them down or belittling them, or even the victim doing things they never would have done before, like covering up their body or repeatedly canceling plans at the very last minute.

“The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to be an expert — you need to be a friend. So when you do reach out, try to listen without judgement, ask what you can do to help, and ultimately, support their decisions,” Randel said. “This last one can be the most difficult, because they may not be ready to take any action, which can be difficult to watch. But those in abusive relationships have had their power taken away from them, so you helping them regain a sense of control over their own lives is really important.”

It’s also important for them not to be even further isolated and cut off from support. Find more resources belowl.

We also spoke with Videto about what she’s learned and the response in the triathlon community to her blog post:

What are the biggest misconceptions people have had?

As athletes, we believe ourselves to be so strong and impenetrable, especially triathletes. You’re able to do this crazy stuff, these things that “normal” people couldn’t do, so therefore you couldn’t be in this cycle. But the reality is we probably all have a friend who’s going through this and we don’t know.

What do you wish you had known? What do you wish other athletes know?

The biggest thing, I think, is we, as women, don’t think of the emotional, mental, and financial abuse as domestic violence. We think of DV as somebody getting hit, which also happens. That, most of the time, you can see, in some way. Whereas the emotional, mental, financial you’ll never see that unless you’re somebody that’s close enough.

What should people do if they suspect a friend or training partner is dealing with abuse?

All I can think on my end is what I wish someone had done when I was in that situation. I wish that someone had just started a conversation. You have to start the conversation somewhere, you have to get past that awkward stage. But every situation is so unique. With Mary, I wish I hadn’t listened to her excuses, I wish I had just driven out there, even if she’s saying ‘oh he’d never do anything,’ it only takes one time.

And we need to teach our daughters the signs. You never ever feel bad for a guy, you never stay with a guy who makes you feel bad, you don’t need someone to make you feel bad.

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For those experiencing domestic violence and abuse: