HOLIDAY — The asphalt roads and grassy trails kept Argishti Gazari in shape and out of trouble. They’ll take the Anclote senior to Saturday’s Class 2A state track meet in Jacksonville and to the running program at USF.
And in three years and hundreds of miles, they transformed him from a quiet immigrant into a confident American.
“For me it actually changed my life,” Gazari said.
The 19-year-old Armenia native had experienced change before he came to Florida in 2009. When he was 13, his mother came to America to teach arts and crafts, so Gazari went to Russia to live with his aunt.
The transition from a former Soviet republic to nearby Russia was fairly simple. Russian was his second language in Armenia, so there was no language barrier. The cultures and religions were close enough.
But when he moved to Tampa Bay to live with his mother at age 16, the differences were stark. If Armenia was 10 cultural years behind Russia, the United States was another 10 years ahead.
“I had to relearn everything,” Gazari said.
Including the language. Although he studied English in Russia, it’s one thing to memorize the parts of speech and grammar in class. It’s another to listen to teachers speak your third language, translate their words in your head and scribble them on a page.
With no family here besides his mother, Gazari felt isolated. He was quiet and shy in the hallways. When a teacher suggested he try sports to help acclimate to his new school as a sophomore, Gazari chose running. He didn’t run or play sports in Russia, and he huffed and puffed his way through initial workouts at Anclote.
The more he ran, the more time he spent with his teammates. The more he listened, the more he began to understand the language.
“It was very difficult to understand what he was saying,” Sharks coach Alan Parmenter said. “You’d just nod and smile. Let’s go run again.”
And Gazari kept running. He grew more confident in himself and his words. He opened up with friends and at school.
By his junior year, Gazari was a cross country captain and the school’s first state qualifier.
“He could express himself through running,” Parmenter said.
Then Gazari began to express himself elsewhere, too. He redesigned the school’s website and added a blog for the principal. He received conference accolades for his academics and 4.19 GPA.
When his mom, Karine Aber, wanted him to get a job to learn how to work in America, he started stocking shelves at Sweetbay 30 hours a week, even if it meant working until 11:30 p.m. on days with a 6 a.m. wakeup call.
In November, Anclote named him its outstanding senior, and the aspiring software engineer signed to run at USF this month.
“My dream has come true,” his mother said in a phone interview from an art show in New York.
After a seventh-place finish at state in the 3,200 meters last spring, Gazari plowed through 70 miles a week in the summer. He fought through a nagging foot injury that relegated him to a 19th-place finish in cross country last fall.
He’ll be one of the favorites in the distance events in Jacksonville. His region-winning time in the 3200 (9:40.37) was six seconds faster than anyone else in Class 2A, and he’s seeded second in the mile (4:22.21).
Gazari is still adapting to the United States. His accent remains thick, and occasionally a phrase like “nagging injury” eludes him. But his coach has noticed a personality shift. Gazari has turned from a quiet runner into a confident fighter.
“(Running) builds a mentality, you never want to give up,” Gazari said. “Keep going. Work harder.”
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.
When: Class A, Friday; Class 2A, Saturday
Where: University of North Florida, Jacksonville
Admission: $9 per meet
Schedule: 4x800 relay, start of field events at 1 p.m.; running event preliminaries at 4; running finals at 6:30