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After she came to America from Ukraine in 1999 as an exchange student, it wasn’t long before Kat* had “everything.” At least that’s how it appeared to on the outside. A husband, a home, children, a car, an education. But Kat was trapped in an abusive marriage and it wasn’t until she found triathlon, and the community through the sport, that she really finally had a new start.
This Sunday, Kat will jump off a boat and into the San Francisco Bay to compete in Escape from Alcatraz. It’ll be nothing compared to the leap of faith Kat took in 2020: to break free of the abuse she endured for twenty years.
From isolation to abuse
When Kat arrived in the U.S., she knew no one and spoke no English. In a state of vulnerability, with an immense feeling of isolation, she began dating someone who would eventually become her husband. Although subtle at the start, the cycle of abuse began with discouragement of her going out and making friends and a feeling that she couldn’t do anything right. She said she became captive in her own home.
“I tried to convince myself that it was OK,” she said. “But I was stuck. I was not allowed to have friends. I had no connections. Everyone thought I had this glamorous all American dream—a car and a house, what else could a girl dream of?”
In 2006, she thought that children could fix the situation, or at least make things better, so they started a family.
“We had three kids and there was no change,” she said. “I was still isolated. After the third child was born I was working and basically single parenting because he was so absent. I still didn’t have a sense of community or friends.”
Then, in 2014, while living in Louisiana, she discovered running.
“It was just ‘me’ time,” she said. “With no obligations, no hurry up to pick up my children, or cook dinner, or clean the dishes.”
She was starting to gain momentum and independence through running, but then her husband decided—with no warning or communication, she said—to leave his job and move to a different state. She was left to pick up the pieces, sell the house, and move her three kids across the country. “I was stuck again and was too scared to disobey,” she said. “One way or another there would be punishment, so I sold the house and my mom helped us follow him.”
In their new home, Kat joined a gym and hoped to continue running. On her first day there, a friendly woman walked right up to her and introduced herself as Amy.
“She expanded my circle of friends and made me see that there was more to life than what I knew,” Kat said. “It reminded me of the old Kat—when I was in the Ukraine. I got glimpses of my old self, someone who liked challenge, liked setting goals, liked people.”
Amy and Kat started training for 5K and 10K races, and eventually Kat completed her first marathon in 2016, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Her husband, though, frowned on her athletic endeavors and never congratulated her on her accomplishments. He thought she was being selfish and it was a waste of time.
But Kat continued to improve. She would train early, sometimes at 3:45 am, because it was the only time she had—and Amy would always be there, no matter what hour. “She was always the one that was asking me, ‘What’s next, Kat?’” she said.
And that’s how the pair found triathlon.
In memory of Amy
In 2017, Kat’s husband left again, with no warning or communication, to pursue a new job in a new state, leaving her to again sell the house, move the family, and follow him. This time, however, she didn’t. This time, she stayed put. Kat filed for divorce, but because they were living in different states, it couldn’t be finalized.
She kept training for triathlon, finishing sprint and Olympic-distance races. She and Amy signed for separate half-Ironman events. They would train together, and then be able to support one another at their own races.
“Training was going great,” Kat said. “I had banners done, maps printed, everything ready to go and then on the day of our travel I got a call from Amy telling me she was on the way to urgent care. Amy would always show up even in -10 degrees F. I knew I could always count on that woman. I knew something was very very wrong.”
Amy was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and was given two to three months to live.
But she convinced Kat to still compete in her half-Ironman in North Carolina.
“I decided that I had to do the race for her,” Kat said. “I went and raced and had her name on my forearm. On that day it was the first day she was going through chemotherapy. Every time I felt pain I would think of her. I would just be so grateful that my body let me do this.”
In March of 2018, Amy passed away.
“It was through those long runs and long bike rides, and being with Amy, that I developed a belief in myself,” she said. “She made me realize that what was going on was not OK, and always said ‘Kat, you are stronger than you think! Why are you allowing someone to be like that?’”
It was a tough time, though, 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 was living—she agreed.
“Part of me wanted to get out of that town, because every road and every hill reminded me of Amy,” Kat said.
Just like she had in the past, Kat followed and moved her family to a new state. But this time was different for her.
“There was no isolating me then,” she said. “I knew I could find my people.”
It wasn’t long before 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 the Ironman, she would leave her husband.
In November of 2019, Kat traveled to Cozumel. On a hot and 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 small bird.
“Every step I told myself that I am one step closer to getting away from him, like a little bird, and as soon as I get to the finish line I will 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, though. The day she was moving out, her husband picked up the kids from school and told them that she was abandoning the family. Two years in court and $300,000 later, she lost custody of her three kids.
“He hired the best lawyer in the state and used triathlon training and Ironman against me in court,” she said. “He claimed it was selfish, time-consuming, and expensive.”
In a time of incredible heartbreak, Kat made the difficult decision to move again and start fresh. She started her own coaching business, hoping to give back to the sport that gave her so much.
“Maybe there are other people that are struggling and I could be their lifeline,” she said. “You can do hard things; you are not alone.”
For help or more information: The National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-SAFE
*To protect her identity, we are only identifying Kat by her first name.
Jessica Broderick contributed to this article.