Mariam Kevkhishvili: An International Success Story
GAINESVILLE, Florida – He was Australia’s throwing coach at the time. It was the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece and he had a team of world class throwers under his supervision.
Still, Steve Lemke couldn’t help but notice an 18-year-old thrower from Tbilisi, Georgia.
A little more than a year later, now as the throwing coach at the University of Florida, Lemke found himself in the house of this 18-year-old at the interface between Europe and Asia.
“She was the first female athlete I recruited when I came to UF,” said Lemke, who retired after 16 years with the Gators at the end of last season.
she is inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame Class of 2020, Mariam Kevkhishvili. She is one of the best track and field athletes to ever come through UF. And she wouldn’t even have set foot in the United States if Lemke hadn’t believed in her.
After becoming friends with Kevkhishvili at the 2004 Olympics, she was his top recruiting priority when he became UF’s throwing coach.
To find her, Lemke first sent an email to the National Olympic Committee of Georgia in Tbilisi. He was escorted to her trainer, an elderly man who didn’t speak a word of English. But it was the trainer’s English-speaking daughter who answered when Lemke called.
“If he spoke on the phone without English, that would be the end.” said Lemke. “It should be like that.”
A face-to-face meeting with Lemke at her home in Georgia was all Kevkhishvili needed to be comfortable traveling around the world to college. He stayed in Tbilisi for three days. He got to know the extended family of Kevkhishvili. And he quickly became a close friend.
“He stood out from every recruiting letter I received,” said Kevkhishvili. “He planned my future (at UF). He was the reason I came here.”
When she got to Gainesville she was too shy to say a word.
But on Friday night, when Kevkhishvili is officially inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame, she will have a lot to say.
When Kevkhishvili first landed in the US fifteen years ago, she found herself in a culture that was far from her comfort zone.
“I was very lost,” she said. “It was hard. But I knew that I just had to move forward, not backward.”
She is now an assistant athlete for the University of South Florida. She has been a trainer for 11 years. She left a legend for UF.
Kevkhishvili set the school record with five individual NCAA titles, in addition to winning five individual SEC championships and earning the USTFCCCA All-America First Team eight times. She was also a two-time SEC Field Athlete of 2009 and 2010, and became the second woman in NCAA history to win consecutive NCAA indoor and outdoor shot put titles.
But none of this would have been possible without her uncanny determination and work ethic.
“There are a lot of people who couldn’t do what they did,” said Kelly Bradley, Kevkhishvilis UF Academic Advisor.
Bradley has helped hundreds of Gators athletes during her nearly two decades with UF. But if anything, few stood out as much as Kevkhishvili.
“She’s the toughest worker I … know,” Bradley said. “She was determined.”
Kevkhishvili says it was those who helped her during her time at UF that enabled her to be successful. But as Bradley explains, Kevkhishvili’s demeanor was fun to help.
“When she got here we knew she was that special, amazing athlete,” said Bradley. “But then we actually met the special, amazing person she is. That’s her core.”
Aside from the immense success she found on the field, Kevkhishvili overcame the obstacles that stood in her way with her character.
Florida’s head coach for athletics Mike Holloway knows that Kevkhishvili meant more to his team than just their performance on the field.
“Mariam was definitely a world class athlete,” said Holloway. “But she’s also a world-class person. She’s one of my all-time favorites. I love her to death.”
Seventeen years ago, Lemke saw something special in an 18-year-old whom he had just met. He knew that moving across the planet would be anything but easy. But he knew that Mariam Kevkhishvili was different.
“Nothing was easy,” said Lemke. “But with her support network and her own personality, she just got over it. She never stopped.”
Mariam Kevkhishvili, an incredible athlete, an incredible person, and now a member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame.