“She told me, ‘I just want to let you know that we are on your side,’” Yuliya recalled. But when she told Vitaly about the conversation, he snapped, “I told you not to talk to strangers.”
Yet at times, she has been very vocal about the need for clean sports, testifying to Congress about doping and speaking publicly about it at the White House.
The Stepanovs said they support themselves through financial arrangements with the International Olympic Committee. Vitaly works as a consultant, meeting with the I.O.C.’s president, Thomas Bach, and some of the same Olympic officials he battled in 2016 as he tried, but failed, to get Yuliya into the Rio Games. Yuliya receives an I.O.C. scholarship that provides financial support for athletes training for the Olympics. It pays for her training expenses, though it is unlikely she will ever get to run in the Games.
Despite the income — much more than the $18,000 a year Vitaly said he would be making at the Russian Anti-Doping Agency — the Stepanovs live frugally. Most of their furniture came from Craigslist or from local benefactors, they said. Yuliya’s favorite store is Ross Dress for Less, and she drives a 2012 Ford Escape with nearly 184,000 miles on its odometer. Their go-to pizza dinner is the $5.99 special from Domino’s.
Vitaly, who attended high school and some college in the United States, has earned two college degrees online — he hopes to work in Olympic sports one day — and Yuliya was in school for a time, too. She enrolled to learn English, but found it easier to pick up words by watching subtitled films. The “Harry Potter” movies are her favorite. But she never thought she would need to know English.
When she left Russia five years ago, she thought she would return soon. She ended up leaving a great deal behind. Friends. Family, including one sister with kidney cancer that appears to have spread. She said she Skypes with her relatives about once a month. She knows she may never again see the sentimental items she didn’t bother to take with her: photos of family and friends; her grandfather’s World War II medals; the silver cup Vitaly’s parents gave to Robert when he was born.
Vitaly said he had moved on from those memories. He is a practical man. But sometimes there are exceptions.