RCW: The Aruncator
Every athlete has a story. Some take direct paths to success from the day they start the sport, while others have many twists in turns in their roads. Nicolai Ceban, a junior thrower for the Kansas track & field team, took the latter of the two options. Despite never throwing until high school, he was born to be an aruncator, or “thrower” in his native language of Romanian.
Ceban grew up in Camenca, Moldova, a town that lies less than 30 minutes away from the southeastern border of Ukraine. When looking at the 6-foot-3-inch athletic Jayhawk, one would think that he has spent his whole life training, but this isn’t the case. It wasn’t until Ceban was 16 years old when his dad thought his natural physique would make him a good thrower and could possibly even translate to earning a scholarship to a university in Moldova.
“Many people told me it was too late to start,” said Ceban. “I had relatives who told me that. That was kind of discouraging because I was working hard and doing my best, but at the same time it was motivation to work harder and to prove them wrong.”
That motivation off the field translated on the field in the blink of an eye, as Ceban progressed rapidly in both the shot put and discus throws. Eventually, he became one of only three athletes from Moldova to receive an invite to compete at the World Junior Championships in 2014. Ceban packed his bags in preparation for the near-20-hour plane ride from Moldova to Eugene, Oregon, and was off to go prove himself.
About a year prior to the 2014 World Junior Championships, Ceban was still planning on continuing his career at a university in his home country, but he knew that he would be under the watch of American universities during his stay in Oregon. One of those holding the recruiting magnifying glass would be Andy Kokhanovsky, throwing coach of the KU track & field team.
“I had seen results from him from the year before so I knew who he was, but I hadn’t actually seen him before (the World Junior Championships),” said Kokhanovsky. “He was very good. He was a good guy, always working hard, but he was by himself. He had no coach. He was by himself throwing the discus.”
Despite lacking a coach, Ceban set a national record in the qualification rounds in discus and earned a spot in the finals. Following his successes in Eugene, his decision to stay close to home had changed drastically and he had boiled his choices down to three American universities, including Kansas.
“One big factor (in the decision) was that Coach Andy is from Ukraine and so he speaks Russian,” explained Ceban, who is also fluent in the language. “That was a very important factor at the time since I didn’t know much about the U.S., in general. I trusted him more than other coaches because he’s from a part of the world that I’m from. He called me and he told me everything that I can do in order to make it work.”
After months of discussions with family, friends and coaches, Ceban finally became certain of one thing: he wanted to be a Jayhawk. Though confident in his decision, it was made rather blindly. When asked if he even knew about the state of Kansas prior to his recruiting, Ceban chuckled, and responded, “A little.”
“I remember when my plane landed in Kansas City and my adrenaline started kicking in. I was like, ‘Oh gosh where did I come to?'” said Ceban of his first impressions of his new home. “I didn’t know much then.”
The Moldovan said that his first few months in Lawrence were actually rather easy due to the fact that everything was so new to him. He dealt with new experiences every day, and was willing to try anything, regardless of the countless differences between Kansas and Moldova.
“I had to adjust to so many things,” said Ceban. “I think American food is all right. It’s tasty. I miss my home food, but it’s a normal thing to have different food in different cultures. I don’t hate or love American food or my home food, they’re just different. The educational system is very different though. I never thought it could be that interesting just to study. The educational system back home is boring. You’ve got to apply more force and more desire in order to study and be smart. Here you just have to listen to your teacher and what they suggest, and then use your time appropriately. It’s easier to learn new material and it’s interesting at the same time. I like the educational system very much here.”
Despite the “I’ll try anything” approach that Ceban came to Kansas with, it was about three months into his freshman year when he started to deal with feelings of missing his friends and his family back in Moldova. Through the struggles, Ceban turned to his studies and his athletics to take his mind away from the reality of being 5,500 miles away from home. Ever since, he has been a powerful force for the Kansas track & field team. During his three years at KU, his personal record in the discus has jumped from 58.06 meters to 60.01 meters, while his shot put has risen from a 17.89 meters to a 19.85 meters.
“He’s matured a lot compared to himself as a freshman,” added Kokhanovsky. “He’s gotten used to the system and is competing well. I think he really grew up.”
“At every point in my career, I never thought of myself as being good enough because I knew that my potential is bigger, so I should do better. That always kept me working harder to reach new levels,” stated Ceban. “It feels good looking back and seeing so many people appreciating your efforts and your accomplishments. That’s when you realize that you’re good and you’ve reached a certain level. That keeps you going. It gives you more energy to work harder. That’s a beautiful thing about being here is that you work hard with so many people and they show you that you matter. That’s the best thing that can happen to an athlete. Knowing that all of the effort and hard work is being appreciated. It’s cool to know that people care about you.”
While Ceban loves being cared about in Kansas, he’s returned the favor to others. His presence on the team is crucial in terms of producing strong results, but he also plays another critical role for the Jayhawk track & field team: personal translator and mentor.
Gleb Dudarev, a freshman thrower for the Jayhawks, came to KU from Belarus, which is just one country away from Ceban’s homeland of Moldova. According to Ceban, Belarus and Moldova share many cultural similarities, including the fact that Moldova’s secondary language of Russian is Belarus’ primary language. Before Dudarev even landed on campus, Ceban was already acting as his mentor, making sure all of his physical, academic and athletic documents were in line before Dudarev made the journey to Lawrence. Ever since Dudarev arrived at KU, the European tandem has been nearly inseparable.
“He is really talented. I love having somebody like him on the team,” said Ceban. “We understand each other. We don’t have to explain many things in order to understand each other. Even in practice and lifting, we always spot each other and encourage each other. So things work really well.
“I do help him a lot because I remember myself coming here and having people help me. My English was better than his was, but I still needed a lot of help. So I’m just trying to give back to him. I’m trying to help him to improve his English and, in general, to do the right things in order to make him successful here at KU. I think he’s going to be one of those (people) at KU who are going to reach some really high levels, so it wouldn’t be right to not help him. We should give him everything he needs.”
While Ceban believes his younger teammate will excel with the help and support of others while donning the Crimson and Blue, he has experienced his own triumphs while on Mount Oread. Despite his successes during his three years as a Jayhawk, Ceban views his time here as just the start of his career as opposed to the peak. With a current personal best of 19.85 meters in the shot put, Ceban only needs to add 65 centimeters (or just over two feet) in order to meet the standard needed to qualify for the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“I added 70 centimeters to last year’s result, and that’s considering all of the school work I put in, so next year I definitely want to hit the 20-meter mark,” said Ceban of his performance in the shot put so far this season. “That means that after I graduate, I’ll have two more years to prepare for the Olympics. This is really exciting. Considering that I can focus only on throwing and that I can put more effort into it, this is a very big thing for me. I want to be a part of the world elite throwing team. This is always in my mind.”
Kokhanovsky believes that Ceban will achieve the aspirations he has set for himself.
“I think his main potential comes from himself,” added Kokhanovsky. “He’ll go as far as he can believe he can go. He just needs to have that belief that he can do it.”
Regardless of where Ceban ends up, it is safe to say that Lawrence, Kansas, has definitely joined Camenca, Moldova as one of his home bases along his journey to athletic success