Next month, international bodybuilding champion Irina Proshak will enroll in the Sacramento Police Department Academy, hoping to become the first Slavic woman to join the city’s force.
“I want to take bad people and put them in jail,” said Proshak, a mother of three who’s seen firsthand many of the challenges facing the Sacramento region’s estimated 60,000 former Soviet Union refugees – and their Americanized children.
“Crime and corruption were everywhere in Ukraine; nobody believed in the law,” said Proshak, 41, who fled the country with her husband and baby daughter in 1996.
Unfortunately, that mindset has stuck with many Slavic refugees who came here from a place where law enforcement was seen as an enemy that needed to be avoided or outwitted, Proshak said. “It’s too much to try and fix this big community … but we can teach kids born here in America to replace that mindset with a normal life.”
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When she starts the Sacramento police academy in January, the Ukrainian immigrant will be one of 40 men and women selected for the 24-week program.
“Not only do we have a need for a Slavic officer, but (we also need) officers who mirror the community we serve and help us build trust,” said Police Department spokesman Doug Morse. “It’s such self-directed work in the field. It helps to have someone who has managed their personal and professional life well. We’re very excited to have her in the academy. She’s done some pretty impressive things.”
Proshak, a 5-foot-3 inch, 112-pound whirlwind, has gone from cleaning toilets to owning her own business, Vivid Spa & Salon on Fulton Avenue, while working out at a gym for up to four hours a day, seven days a week. She still finds time to cook low-carb, high-protein meals for her family, pay bills and help her youngest son with his homework. Her secret? “Wake up 30 minutes earlier.”
On Sunday, she got up at 5 a.m., went to the gym to do leg exercises for two hours, came home to make her family a breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes (she ate a cup and a half of oatmeal, egg whites and blueberries) and was back at the gym for 45 minutes of strength and abdominal training. Then she stopped at her hair salon, where on her mirror hang two gold medals won at an international bodybuilding competition, Natural Olympia, held in San Diego last month.
Proshak beat contestants from 54 other countries to win first place in the Bikini Divas Masters category for women ages 40-49, part of the competition sponsored by the International Natural Bodybuilding Association.
“I go to the gym seven days a week, then work six days a week at the salon,” said Proshak, who began working out four years ago at The Gym in Sacramento, motivated by several female bodybuilders and Shaun Hayes, who is now her personal trainer at 4-Ever Fit in Elk Grove.
“I was skinny fat, very skinny but no muscles,” she said between sets and grunts Sunday. “I like how I feel now: strong!”
“I’m sore 24/7, but my muscles are growing, and my abs are six-packs,” she said. “I eat seven times a day, just fish, chicken, brown rice, sweet potatoes, egg whites, cottage cheese, blueberries, everything green.”
Her dream of becoming a cop began in Ukraine, where her parents ran a flower shop in Zaporozhye. She got a job as a lab technician after high school, then attended a law enforcement academy for two years but didn’t finish because her then-husband, a devout Christian, was granted religious refugee status to come to California, along with her parents and in-laws. “It wasn’t very safe over there for our parents,” who feared their children would be denied degrees and promotions because of their Christian beliefs, Proshak said.
She recalls arriving in Sacramento without a word of English, “No ‘hi,’ no ‘bye.’”
Proshak’s first job was working the janitorial graveyard shift at the state Department of Motor Vehicles offices on Broadway “with a bunch of Mexicans and Russians talking in sign language for one year.” After finishing her 10 p.m.-to-4 a.m. shift, she attended adult school and learned English. She began cutting hair and got her cosmetology degree at Sacramento City College. That evolved into Vivid Spa & Salon, where she met her current husband, a refugee from the former Soviet Union who works as an electrician.
While cutting her clients’ hair, she has heard many stories about the struggles of Slavic refugees. “Sometimes they have 13 kids and nobody cares, the father’s a truck driver and the mother’s tired all the time, kids everywhere,” Proshak said.
If she completes the Sacramento police academy, she hopes to conduct workshops for the Slavic community on drugs, U.S. laws and parenting. “Some people from the villages have no idea what marijuana is, or how to tell if their kids are using,” said Proshak, who speaks Ukrainian, Russian, German and English. “We need to explain what to look for and how to keep your children busy so they don’t have time to get in trouble and go to the park with bad friends.”
“I teach my kids ‘We have laws!’” Proshak said. “I am very tough … but they respect me and know they can tell me anything.”
Her oldest daughter, a freshman at UC Davis, is on the diving team and plans to become a speech therapist. Her 16-year-old daughter is in AP classes at El Camino High School, takes piano lessons and plays club soccer. Her 6-year-old son takes karate and has debuted on YouTube as a drummer, she said.
At her police academy entrance interview, when asked why she should be accepted, Proshak said she replied, “Because I’m very disciplined, in great shape, have a lot of energy and I’m a winner!”
Before she can become what is believed to be the first female Slavic police officer in Sacramento, Proshak must complete 933 hours of training and pass an exam in 43 “learning domains,” such as how to drive a police car, conduct preliminary investigations, do crisis intervention, handle vehicle stops and deal with domestic violence, Morse said.
Not every academy recruit will pass, Morse said, but assuming that Proshak does, “We can’t wait to have her join the Sac police family.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated hours worked by Irina Proshak while at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Her shift was 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.