TEMPLE TERRACE — To Robert Niedbalec, judo was more than moves on a mat. The 52-year-old black belt instructor went to the gym three days a week and often took hourslong bicycle rides to stay in shape.
But when his ride on Sunday kept him out past sunset, his wife, Kathryn, went looking for him. She didn't know that deputies were working at that moment to confirm her husband's identity.
According to detectives, a car driven by Cristina Perenzuela, 20, hit and killed Niedbalec as he rode in an eastbound bicycle lane near the University of South Florida's Riverfront Park around 2 p.m. Sunday.
The Sheriff's Office is trying to determine if Perenzuela's Ford was racing with another car. Deputies reported Sunday that it was apparently traveling at a high rate of speed in tandem with another sedan when it struck Niedbalec.
They've impounded both cars. As of Monday evening, no one had been charged.
Niedbalec was a veterinarian and judo aficionado who came to the United States in 1987 from Poland, where he specialized in the care of cows and had a mean shoulder throw.
In Florida, he worked as a vet's assistant and met his wife. He was determined to work as a veterinarian in the United States and spent many late nights studying for certification, Kathryn said.
The couple had a daughter, Katie, whom Niedbalec adored. He made sure she kept up on her science and math, and they would watch movies together.
"He was her pal," Kathryn said.
Those who knew Niedbalec say he was humble.
Other vets speak highly of him, and when Tampa Bay Judo & Aikido Dojo founder Lou Buttitta first saw Niedbalec fight in the early '90s, he knew right away Niedbalec was no brown belt.
"He was very strong," said Buttitta, who quickly promoted Niedbalec to black belt.
With Katie, now 21, in college, Kathryn and Robert Niedbalec were enjoying their time alone together. They took a kayaking trip to Utah last year and were hoping to do some camping and perhaps go to South America soon.
"These were supposed to be the best years of our life," Kathryn said at her Temple Terrace home.
She was still in shock Monday, tears running down her face as she talked about the horror of losing her husband. She just shook her head when asked about investigators' theory that the drivers may have been racing.
State driving records show that Perenzuela's only traffic violation was a conviction for driving without a seat belt in 2009.
The second car's driver, Armando Perez Jr., 34, has twice been convicted of speeding, as well as for failing to wear his seat belt and failing to obey a traffic control device, state records show.
Perez's license has been suspended several times. He was convicted of driving with a suspended license one of those times, in 2006, records show.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or [email protected].