Why I Stayed: How Sports Helped Me Get Out Of An Abusive Relationship

by Elizabeth Swaney

He never hit me, threw me on the floor or punched me. No physical scars could directly be tied back to him, but still, he forced my mind and body to suffer.

His abuse and threats ultimately forced me to become his servant. I rose above this ordeal with the help of my teammates, coaches, friends and faith.

I hope any other person that has gone through, or is going through, something similar will realize this: You have the power within yourself to leave. You can be free, but if you do not feel this way just yet, others can help you do so and guide you to realize your self-worth.

We first met during the start of my senior year in college eight years ago. I had just finished a series of hill sprint workouts on a popular path behind the hills named the Fire Trail, overlooking the San Francisco Bay.

I was in off-season practice for a winter sport called skeleton, where one runs with a sled, then slides headfirst down a bobsled track on a sled, reaching speeds of up to 85 miles per hour.

Checking out the time, I realized I only had 10 minutes to make it to the dining hall before closure. I arrived just in time. Luckily, I did not have to eat alone during this lunchtime; one other student had also just arrived.

I was 22 and he was 31. I thought he had it all; he was handsome, charming and wise. Plus, he was in the final stages of completing not one, but two doctorates at the same time: an MD and PhD in bioengineering. How could I say no?

He was the center of attention at the parties, and usually threw the parties, but always chose me at the end of the night. I secretly loved the jealous eyes of the women on me.

He took me on rides on his motorcycle, invited me to his prestigious research office, and even cooked me dinner a few times. He told me I was cute. I had never been this lucky before, I thought. I knew I had to hold on to this one, no matter what.

We started talking about being in a relationship a few weeks after we met. It was a no-go. He demanded that I first be a lot more physical with him, and I obliged.

Each day, he wanted more. It got to the point where I felt like I was becoming his slave in bed, caving in to each one of his physical desires. Even when I wanted to go to the gym or have more time for my studies, he told me his needs took priority.

He told me this level of physicality was how real adult relationships worked, and that when I was his age, I would understand. I wanted this “real relationship” that he referred to, so I did my best to satisfy him.

After serving him in the bedroom, he decided I would also make a good servant in other parts of the house, as well. He ordered me to constantly clean different parts of the house for him, then told me to rearrange the furniture.

This process involved carrying heavy items. When I complained, he just got angrier and told me I needed more discipline. I felt a pull in my back, but he told me to keep going. It took me weeks to recover from the back pain.

I was already spending less time in the gym each week for skeleton and less time on my studies because of my obligations to him, and this incident gave me just more of a reason to rely on him.

Most days, he was too drunk, high, or a combination of the two to ride his motorcycle to his research office, so he would force me to drive his car there, and sleep on the cold office floor until he was done with his work.

He would wake me up at odd hours when he was done with his research, then force me to drive the car back, as well. The drive was not to be taken lightly; it was about 20 miles each way, through three major cities and over a bridge across the bay.

I told him I was too tired to drive back on several occasions, but he always said it was “bad form” to stay in the office, and that if I would not be the girl to help him, he would find someone else that would.

I remember one night I felt more asleep than awake during the drive. I probably actually stayed awake due to his threats to me behind the wheel.

I cried with exhaustion and relief when we somehow made it back safely. Then I slept in the car that night because I was too drained to have the strength to even open the vehicle door. I remember watching him cross the street to go back to his place, without me, just before I closed my eyes to go to sleep.

I was helping a future doctor with research, I thought.

In return for my services to him, he let me call him my boyfriend (though only to a few of his friends and mine, in public -- he wanted to keep his “privacy”), talk about the future and still made me feel special occasionally.

I craved the first few weeks of the relationship, when he was kind all the time, accepting and did not force me to do anything. I told him my concerns, he assured me that everything would change once he finished his degrees and became less stressed out.

He told me he needed me to get through his studies, and that my helping him would be all worth it in the end.

In late December, we made the 12-hour drive from Utah to California for my winter break skeleton training. Again, I was the driver most of the way. I remember him yelling at me through stretches of the Nevada desert, telling me I was going too slow.

When I obeyed and went faster, I was pulled over for speeding. He yelled at me for being too dumb to talk myself out of the ticket. When we finally arrived at the destination, he made me buy a plane ticket for him and took the next flight out to California. I was alone in Utah.

While I did feel the excitement of training for a new sport, I also had virtually no idea of my way around Utah or where I should stay. To my surprise, my new training teammates and coaches embraced me.

They found me a place to live, showed me around the area, introduced me to new people and made sure I got to skeleton track and gym each day. They were motivating, encouraging and nothing but positive. The relationships with these people in my first season, and their confidence in me, gave me a feeling of strength that had escaped me during my time with my boyfriend.

Still, I missed him.

When my last semester in college approached, I needed to spend more time in California and less in Utah. He was angry for the time I had spent away, and made sure I felt it.

He began to tell me how hot other women were, and how “cute” girls were that were clearly underage. We went out to dance clubs, and he would dance with me but also with other women. In response to my complaints, he just told me I was jealous and childish, then tell me to do more work for him.

I felt like I had to grow up, especially if I wanted a man as seemingly impressive as him in my life.

To finish the last part of his MD, he needed to go to a different university across the country to complete more research. Within his first month there, he got a DUI. He immediately blamed me, even though he was in Virginia and I in California at the time.

His reasoning was that I had helped him pick out his current house online; and if he had not lived there, he would not have met the other tenants that he went out to the bar with that night.

Through my then-skewed logic, I immediately apologized, then was obliged to spend weeks researching DUI attorneys for him. I was further punished by him for his DUI after I moved across the country to be with him, giving him further control of me.

After I graduated, the time came to fly to Virginia. I loved the idea of having a new start with him, but quickly, things returned to normal. A few days a week, he would lock me inside the house, telling me to focus on organizing the house and keeping the mice away.

He allowed me to go outside to buy groceries so that I could cook meals for him. I begged for him to drive me to the gym about 5 miles away, but he always said he didn’t have time; his medical studies were more important. During days I was not locked inside, I walked an hour in the muggy heat to the ice rink and back to get in as many laps as I could before I knew I had to be back for him.

Towards the middle of the summer, I felt like I was not being healthy. I told him I had to go back to California to work out more and get back in shape, but promised I would be back. After that point, our relationship became strictly a long-distance one.

I was sad, but knew I had to make a change. I came back to Utah, and fell in love with something new, a place called Park City. The rolling green hills, majestic mountains and blue skies captivated me. I had enjoyed Park City in the winter, but the summers were even more special.

I was able to practice my skeleton sliding on the push track, and continued to have amazing teammates and coaches that inspired me. I also tried something called ski water ramping for the first time. I would ski down a long, steep, plastic slope, then practice jumps and spins in the air.

I felt that the energy in Park City was unique; it was unlike anything I had experienced in the past. I was constantly encouraged by people who pushed me to do more than I ever thought possible. I knew this place would always be a part of my life.

Still, I was not completely free, as I had this long-distance relationship to handle. When fall returned and I began graduate school on the East Coast, I thought being closer to him would help mend the relationship. Instead, the few conversations he allowed me mostly resulted in arguments.

We broke up in December, and I fell into a depression. During my training trips to Park City or Lake Placid, New York (the other skeleton track), my team was always there for me. Sliding headfirst down an ice chute at blazing speeds also does wonders to clear the mind.

I also dove into faith-based groups that helped support me and lift me up when I could not do this by myself.

The time that I was not spending with him, could now be spent focusing more on my schoolwork, athletics and forming new friendships. Some of the friends I found during my darkest times are among my closer friends today. I came to the conclusion to forgive him, and after, I felt as if I had been released from chains and could continue to live my life.

Years later, I continue to live in Utah; the place and its athletics helped save me. I continue to be grateful for each day for the awesome people I am surrounded by.

My skeleton and ski coaches believe in me, often more than I believe in myself. My training teammates and fellow competitors from around the world inspire me to reach new heights towards my Olympic goals, and always cheer when I land a trick in skiing that I've never done before or reach a new personal record in skeleton.

My roommates are all athletes, and help me be accountable each day for my training. No matter what, even if it's been a rough day at work or training, being around them, my other friends and my training teams always puts a smile on my face.

I've learned to surround myself with people who not only accept me, but push me to accept who I am, and further motivate me to become a better version of myself. I was never able to come to these realizations until recently. Being apart from the incident for awhile, and reflecting back, I have become more self-aware.

You are amazing; you have infinite value and possibilities as a human being. Anything that gets in your way of realizing your potential will cause you to question your worth and stop you from finding happiness.

They may be difficult to come across at first, but if you keep your head and heart open, you will encounter people who want the best for you and encourage you to develop your passions.

If you see others struggling, maybe try to believe in them, as well. You could be the person who influences their lives for the better.

Photo Courtesy: We Heart It