GAINESVILLE — It's a long way from Tbilisi, Georgia to Gainesville, Florida. Six thousand, seven hundred and fifteen miles to be exact.
For Florida senior track and field star Mariam Kevkhishvili, there have been many times during the past four years when the two places seemed more like one million miles apart.
In 2006 Kevkhishvili (pronounced KEV-kish-vee-lee) came to Gainesville in search of a better education and a chance to become one of the world's best shot put throwers. Her English was limited. She was married to a man who made the non-traditional sacrifice of giving up a career as a police detective to join her. She was totally unfamiliar with the quirks of American culture — particularly as it pertains to college kids. She needed a tutor/translator to attend classes with her and help her study. Initially, it was nearly overwhelming.
"Everything was so hard," said Kevkhisvili, 24. "Everything was so different for me. I was speaking English, but I had a hard time. You study from books and you come here and it's completely different English. You have to relearn everything. People would speak to me and I couldn't understand a word they were saying. I was so scared to say anything to anybody. I was stressing out, I felt like it was impossible."
Kevkhishvili persevered, and since arriving has compiled a list of collegiate accomplishments that has surpassed even her expectations. The young woman who didn't score a single point in her first SEC meet is now Florida's all-time leader in indoor shot put competition, currently ranked No. 1 in the nation, and is a seven-time All-American and four-time NCAA champion. She holds the SEC indoor and outdoor meet record in the women's shot put and was the 2007 Outdoor and 2009 Indoor SEC Female Athlete of the Year. This season, she is undefeated in indoor and outdoor competition.
"Her perseverance is why she's a great athlete," Florida head coach Mike Holloway said. "She never, ever said I can't do this. There were people around here who thought she would never graduate, never get it done. She's just an unbelievable story. She's a quality person, a world-class person. And those qualities have spilled over into the athletic arena. She decided she was going to be great and nothing was going to deter her from that."
This week, as Florida prepares for NCAA East Regional competition in Greensboro, N.C., Kevkhishvili is on a mission to not only defend her NCAA title, but break the NCAA record. Her personal best of 59 feet, 2 3/4 inches is just under 2 feet short of the rcord (61-2 1/4).
Gators throws coach Steve Lemke has been in in Kevkhishvili's corner since the two first crossed paths at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. Lemke, a former All-American javelin thrower at South Dakota State, was head coach of the Queensland Academy of Sport in Australia, and the national throws coordinator for the Australian National Team. Kevkhishvili was an 18-year-old competing for her country.
"She stuck out in my mind because she was there by herself," he said. "You could tell she was very young and I felt sorry for her because she had never been to an Olympics. She really didn't know what to do when she got there. I remember her and how she always had a smile on her face and she was so pleasant. . . . I thought in my mind, if I ever go back to the United States and I'm in a collegiate coaching position again, this girl would be someone I would approach."
Two days after he arrived at Florida in 2005, he began his search for Kevkhishvili, sending an e-mail to her country's sports Federation.
"They sent me her coach's phone number knowing he spoke no English," Lemke said. "I call and this guy gets on the phone and he speaks nothing. He started yelling at me and screaming. All of a sudden I hear him say, 'moment, moment.' A girl gets on the phone who speaks very good English. It's his daughter who hasn't visited him in over a year. She happened to be in the house, at that time, on that day. Otherwise it would have been done that day. We would have hung up the phone and said we can't get ahold of her. So (the daughter) gave me Mariam's phone number and I called her. She didn't speak hardly any English though. An hour later, my phone rings, and it's her with a girl who spoke English who said Mariam is very interested. So all those things had to happen at the right time to make the situation work. . . It was meant to be."
Lemke then traveled to Tbilisi to meet with Kevkhishvili and her family.
Her father, Givi, is a former successful wrestler who didn't necessarily want his daughter to experience the pressure that comes with big-time athletics. Ultimately, she felt it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up.
"I knew I had so much more opportunity as an athlete," she said. "I always wanted to see what the other (part of the) world was like. I was 15 years old when I made the national team and I was traveling every summer to other countries and I loved it. I said I have this gift and I need to try to see what's going to happen."
Kevkhisvili never intended to be an athlete. "I hated sport at first," she said. In her country, roles are traditional, and if women play sports, they usually quit after high school graduation. She wanted to be a pediatrician, and getting into college in her country is very competitive. When she was 12, a physical education teacher told her she was wasting her size and talent (she's now 6-foot-3). He refused to give her a grade, which was required, if she didn't participate.
At first she threw the shot put out of necessity. As she got better, she grew to love it.
Last week, Kevkhishvili won her third SEC outdoors shot put title and is currently on schedule to graduate with a degree in sociology. Next month, she will turn pro and continue to pursue her dreams of representing her country one more time in the Olympics.
"I couldn't imagine this when I came," Kevkhisvili said. "I think everything God has for you, you probably don't see it. But I worked so hard. I did everything coach Lemke and my other coaches told me to do. Whatever they tell me, no matter how hard I struggled, I do it. Sometimes I said I'm going to quit, I'm going to give up. But I did not. . . I was working so, so hard. I have made so much progress, and grown so far. It was definitely worth it."
No one is more proud than the man who sensed something special about her six years ago and was determined to help her succeed.
"I'm so happy for her," Lemke said. "Everyone here from the tutors to people at the Office of Student Life, knows how hard she's worked at being successful academically, to be able to survive and make it. Everyone knows how much hard work has gone into it, and I'm really happy for her because that hard work has paid off."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.