One night ten years ago, Yelena Pawela was studying in her dorm room at Moscow's Timiryazev Agricultural Academy when there was a knock at the door. Thinking it was a friend, Pawela opened the door to find five men dressed in heavy winter clothes, their hoods drawn around their faces. "They said, 'Where is your roommate?'" Pawela recalls in heavily accented English. "I told them, 'I don't know where she is,' and they said, 'Well you're even better than she is.'" At that point, the 18-year-old with long blond curls realized she had two options: "I could give in and do whatever they wanted, or I could fight them. I knew I had to pick one way or other, because if you act in middle, you get beat up and raped." So she chose to fight. "I decided I would do something nasty to them right away, so I blew out two of their knees, and I bit another man in the crotch. I don't remember everything that happened, but they tie me up, and I end up much worse off than them."
After her attackers, later identified as Chechnyan Mafia members, fled, Pawela was taken by ambulance to the hospital. She had six broken ribs, a broken jaw, and a stab wound in her right side and had lost 80 percent of her vision in one eye. A decade later, Pawela still struggles to tell the story. She pauses, takes a deep breath, gulps, and continues: "I spent three and a half months in hospital. I had to have six laser surgeries on my eye. But they didn't rape me." She says this with defiant pride. "After I hit and bit, they were so pissed off that they didn't do that."
Now living in West Palm Beach, Pawela has spent the past four years turning the horror of that attack into a career. She teaches self-defense to groups and individuals, trains security dogs, and has three videos produced and distributed by Tactical Response Solutions (TRS Direct), a company that specializes in martial-arts and self-defense video instruction.
"[Pawela] is the first woman TRS has ever used for an instructional video," says Jim Curley, the company's marketing director. "The real value of [Pawela] is that she has the credentials and she's not a big person. In the video, she demonstrates the techniques on a very big man, and she takes him down quickly."
Though smaller than many men, Pawela is by no means diminutive. Standing 5 feet, 7 inches tall, she has lightning reflexes and carries about 150 pounds of whoop-ass muscle on her broad-shouldered frame. She's confident and intense, often talking in the abbreviated syntax of the Russian immigrant, emphasizing her words with expressive hand gestures.
Pawela speaks expertly on such subjects of assault rifles, knives, and advanced martial-arts techniques. But in her self-defense style, she incorporates only those techniques that she believes an average woman can master quickly and use effectively to escape from a threatening situation. This makes her an ideal match for TRS, which markets videos featuring other so-called "dirty" fighters like Oleg Taktarov and Dale Comstock. "Our instructors include former Navy SEALs, police officers, bouncers, convicts, Delta Force, and cage fighters," Curley says. Showing little love for grace and form, TRS' stable of fighters and instructors is all yang, no yin. "In the real world of street fighting and getting attacked, the stuff you learn in the dojo won't do you much good," Curley says. "If you're attacked in a bathroom, a flying spin kick isn't going to help you, but a simple head butt will. We try to throw away all the art and get down to the meat of what you need to know to get out alive."
Before the dorm-room attack, Pawela says, she had always seen herself as strong and capable. Raised by her military-officer father on a border patrol base in southern Russia, Pawela was pushed to learn to protect herself from an early age. "I was raised in a not-too-good area," she says. "It was mostly soldiers and non-Russians: Chechnyans, Georgians. I was pretty much a [foreign] girl in a not-Russian community."
Pawela's father began teaching her to fight when she was only 9 years old. By the time she was 18 and attending the university, she was learning the same hand-to-hand techniques taught to Russia's elite Spetsnaz soldiers. In Russia, authorities treat those who carry illegal guns or knives harshly. "So you have to rely on yourself," Pawela says. "You can use your hands and feet, and you can have a dog with you. So I started working with dogs as a young girl too."
After she graduated from high school with top honors, state education authorities allowed her to attend the state university free of charge. She chose to study veterinary science at the Timiryazev academy, hoping to turn her love of animals into a career. To pay for living expenses while in school, Pawela accepted a part-time job with Russia's 100-year-old Durov Animal Theater, a circus company that hired her to train and care for eight dogs, two wolves, a hippopotamus, and a brown bear cub. "The circus had very little money, so they looked for students to work there," says Pawela. "After six months, I couldn't watch how the animals were treated any longer, so I quit."
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.'"
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."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.