Via triumph and tragedy, Katherine Portillo exemplifies perseverance

When Katherine Portillo joined the US Air Force, she did more than serve her country. She also followed in the footsteps of her former family members who are also committed to the same cause. When I grew up in Belize, the focus wasn't on education or self-improvement. Although she didn't see her father often, he was the example she learned from when she saw him.

"My father was only a brief pilot instructor in World War II," Portillo said. “He always talked about service and patriotism. He was always the one who instilled in me to join his footsteps and follow in his footsteps just because of the honor of service and all of the benefits.

Katherine Portillo entered the world of work in 1996 and began her career as a social worker. Their efforts brought about far-reaching changes early on, which was recognized by the award of Airman of the Year 1997 for the 42nd Supply Squadron. She received numerous honors throughout her career, but the first proud moment she remembered was easily remembered.

“The point I realized I was proud was when I put on uniform and was there to serve,” she recalls. In 2005 she received a commission from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and was newly appointed as a Space and Missiles Systems Officer. She was assigned to the 3D Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, where she served as satellite system operator, satellite vehicle operator, squadron executive officer and head of the orbital analysis section of the defense satellite control system.

In 2009 Portillo was named captain. At this point in her career, her work became much more meaningful.

“When I walked in, it was more about what service can do for me. When I became captain, I realized that it was not about what the ministry can do for me, but what I can do for my country. "

With this mindset, Portillo continued on several other missions, including one when he was deployed to Kyrgyzstan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Another thing Portillo excelled at was fitness, which was very different from when she was growing up in Belize.

"I grew up on a small island (in Belize) where we didn't have any major sports activities at the time in high school," she says. "I ran on the little runway to lose weight because I was told my bum was bigger than the other girls'."

That changed when she started her military career. Katherine Portillo achieved "excellent" results when she took Air Force fitness tests. She also ran numerous 5km, 10km, half marathons, triathlons and also two full marathons. She would also start training for body competitions because she didn't like the look of runners. She was encouraged to compete by IFBB Pro 212 competitor Luis Santa.

“Luis made me do it. We were all stationed at Schriever Air Force Base, ”she said. "He and his wife were the ones who walked me through the process and made me itch."

Her husband, Pavel Ythjall, was also a photographer in the fitness industry. With that combination of support, Portillo would enter the NPC Bikini Division in 2011 by winning the California State Championships. In 2012 she had already won her Pro card thanks to her victory at the junior nationals. Her first and only competition as a professional was this year's Los Angeles Grand Prix, where she finished 9th. It encourages fitness enthusiasts who think of competing someday to do anything.

"Be sure to try it and prove it to yourself. If you want to compete or set a goal, you can," she said. “Don't doubt yourself and give up right away. We actually doubt ourselves before we hit the bull's eye. I've been through that too. Trust your trainer and trust the process of diet and exercise you followed. Stick to the plan and the coach so you can get to this stage. Even if you don't win, reaching the goal alone creates self-confidence. "

Katherine Portillo in her army uniform while driving a jeepCourtesy of Katherine Partillo

Life changing accident

While Katherine Portillo was thriving in both her career and passion, an unfortunate incident changed the course of both of them and their lives. Portillo and her husband had a traffic accident that left her completely paralyzed from the neck down. Pavel also suffered serious injuries. Even at such an intense moment, Portillo relied on her military training to move forward.

“It was important to stay confident and calm. Even when it happened, I had to take over the scene, ”recalls Portillo. “That something they teach you in the military. You have to take over the scene. "

Katherine Portillo did just that by assessing the area, calling 911, and knowing as best she could about her surroundings at such a traumatic moment. When she woke up in the hospital, she found that she was doing it again.

“The organization has supported my way of thinking enormously. As soon as I woke up from the coma, I had to orientate myself, ”she explains. "Time, space, the nurses for example, I had to make sure that I had the schedules under control, took medication, just helped organize my head first."

Portillo's story was traumatic for both her and Pavel, but Pavel found a way to turn a negative into a positive. He wrote a book about their journey that has had a profound impact on others since it was published in vember 2021. "True Love & Suffering" is Pavel's firsthand account of her life, recording her journey since her life-changing accident.

“It was his way of venting everything we'd been through. In this way, he shared the challenge of trauma affecting his family and personal life, ”Portillo said. "Hopefully it will help others who are going through their own processes."

Despite attempting to resume her career, Portillo was released with honors after an 18-year career in the Air Force. Although she is no longer in active service, she has retained the skills and mindset that she acquired from her service.

“I have to take care of the schedule of my supervisors, get groceries, whatever. I still have this mindset of taking responsibility, ”she said. She also had advice for people who dream of big goals in service, fitness, or other endeavors they might feel passionate about.

"Life is short, so act and achieve all you can."

To learn more about True Love and Suffering, visit

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