Whoop-ass Woman

In Yelena Pawela's self-defense classes, a pencil or a car key can become lethal weapons

Ultimately, Pawela also realized that she didn't have the stomach to be a veterinarian. "After two years, you have to assist in surgery," she says. "I didn't like the cutting and taking the organs out." So she switched to animal husbandry, worked part-time for the Moscow police department as a dog trainer, and graduated with a master's degree in 1999.

Pawela then attended the police academy, joined the police force, and, for a heady 14 days, served as a police lieutenant. That's when an officer from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office called her department, wanting to know if the Russian cops had an academy graduate interested in a K-9 training program. Pawela jumped at the chance. In her telephone interview, Pawela says she fibbed about her English skills to get the job. "They asked me in Russian if I could speak English, and I said, 'Yes.' That was the only English word I knew," Pawela says. Two weeks before leaving for the United States, she locked herself in her room with a language learning tape and got herself to the point where she could handle an in-person interview. It wasn't a very wordy interview. "I didn't really say much," says Pawela, who has since become fluent in English.

She spent the next year training K-9 dogs. Before her visa expired, Yelena Matskevich met Paul Pawela, a retired Army Special Forces soldier who had brought his dog to Yelena to be trained. It was a match made in attack-dog heaven. "I had been told that she was the best trainer in the area," Paul Pawela says. "When I drove up and saw her working with these dogs, I knew I had to ask her out to dinner. When I took her back to her house after our first date, one of the dogs she was training bit me." Says Yelena: "When he asked me out again, even after being bitten by the dog, I said, 'This is the man I'm going to marry.'"

Yelena and Paul: It's a marriage made in attack-dog heaven
Michael McElroy
Yelena and Paul: It's a marriage made in attack-dog heaven

After marrying in 2000, the couple founded Counter Aggression Training Systems, a self-defense company that teaches students to use knives, guns, dogs, and hand-to-hand combat techniques. Paul, himself well-versed in hand-to-hand combat, worked for several years as an instructor at the Lethal Force Institute, a seminar program owned by knife expert Massad Ayoob. But the classes the Pawelas teach emphasize function over form. "I've been in krav maga, sambo, jujitsu, jeet kune do, and other martial arts," Yelena says. "I've seen what they teach. I only teach the little bit of hand-to-hand that will work for women."

The Pawelas focus primarily on teaching students how to use nontraditional weapons like car keys, pencils, and dog leashes. In one of her videos, Yelena wraps her hair up in a bun, holding it in place with a pencil. When she is attacked, she takes the pencil out of her hair and uses it to stab her attacker in the eye, throat, and groin. A different technique on the same video shows her nimbly twisting a dog leash around her attacker's arm. "Not too many women have attack dogs," Yelena says. "They've got little Sparkys that are going to run away anyway. With this technique the leash can be a weapon after the dog is scared and gone."

The key to Yelena's success, her husband says, is that her predominantly female students can relate to her. "Most of the time, self-defense instructors are big men who do this for a living," Paul says. "They're not housewives who want to learn a little something after work. Yelena's point is that, if she can do these techniques, then you can too."

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