Rock Chalk Weekly: Fluid Fluency
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Download the app:Written by Krysti Cole, Kansas Athletic Communications Student Assistant
It was too late for Pia Pavlic to turn back – 12 hours and 35,000 feet in the sky too late to be exact.
Squished between two strangers on an airliner somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, the frightening thoughts began to invade her mind for the first time. The fantasies of going to the United States while she was growing up seemed hazy with the sudden reality of what it meant to leave her home country of Slovenia and head to Lawrence, Kansas.
It wasn’t that she was scared for what awaited her in America, but the fact that she was going to be expected to speak English fluently – a language that she despised in school.
Pavlic’s drive to reach perfection has at times restricted her ability to embrace new opportunities with open arms. Whether it be speaking English or learning how to swim, the Medvode, Slovenia native has come to realize her potential the hard way. In her third season at Kansas, Pavlic is putting it all together and is a key member of another successful Jayhawk swimming and diving team.
In high school she always made an effort to put school before extracurricular activities. While this often resulted in earning favor from her professors, she couldn’t seem to use her charming personality and sense of humor to cast the same spell on her English instructor. The circumstances left Pavlic frustrated with the language.
The requirements of having to learn English starting in primary school gave Pavlic no choice but to suffer through class, but as soon as the bell rang she resumed to her home language of Slovene. Even though her grades and teacher often told her that she was not very good at the language, Kansas’ head coach Clark Campbell – a native English speaker – was rather impressed with her abilities.
“When we were recruiting her, we talked a lot over Skype,” Campbell said. “Her English was just as good then as it is now. You could tell when we were talking to her that she wanted to prove to me that she knew English really well, and I really liked that.”
The approval from her soon-to-be coach didn’t offer much consolation for the young teenager though. She’s never been satisfied with being mediocre at anything she’s done, even if it takes a little time to adjust.
After hours of being trapped on a plane, Pavlic’s fears were slightly eased when she arrived at the Kansas City Airport and found that her new teammate and classmate, Yulya Kuchkarova, a Tashkent, Uzbekistan native, would be embarking on a similar journey. Assistant swimming coach, Jen Betz, picked the two international students up at the airport and headed west to their new home in Lawrence.
Over the next few weeks they bonded over a reading and writing class that all international students are required to take through the AEC (Applied English Center). Having both swimmers lack confidence in their English speaking abilities created a space of safety and comfort in what otherwise could’ve been a rough transition.
“We both clicked really quickly,” Kuchkarova said. “We had the same class our first semester and every day I looked forward to that class because it was so fun. I was so happy that I found that kind of person who could relate to my struggles of being in a new place but also have fun with.”
Perhaps with help from her and Kuchkarova’s friendship, now three years after first touching down in the United States, Pavlic’s perception of English has changed drastically. What once caused so much angst has suddenly become something she enjoys.
“I’m very happy that I decided to come here,” Pavlic said. “My English has improved very much, now I actually really like the language. I think it’s very easy, maybe it’s because I have been learning it for so long now. It’s also fun to be able to speak two languages very well.”
Pavlic was certain that her English still needed improvements, and it did – after all it is her second language – but she had been studying the language for years and could easily communicate with her peers and coaches. In fact, as Campbell had mentioned, her English was so good that he never felt that there was ever a language barrier between the two.
While Pavlic and Campbell were fortunate to never have to worry about translating languages, there was a translation that took place in the water once she arrived in Lawrence. But similar to English, the transformation did not come without resistance.
Despite owning KU’s second fastest 100-yard butterfly time this season (54.79) and placing in the top-16 while setting career-best times in three individual events at the 2015 Big 12 Championships, swimming was never Pavlic’s first choice. She tried just about every sport before resorting to the pool. As a 12-year-old, she was camping in Croatia before a friend suggested that she join her father’s club team. In the middle of tennis season then, the thought of participating in a sport that didn’t require any hand-eye coordination made swimming sound very appealing to Pavlic.
“I was very tall, very uncoordinated, hard to coach and I was very hard to be controlled on land,” Pavlic said. “Swimming sounded great, plus I thought I would never have to sweat.”
She joined the swim team once she got back home, but quickly realized that she was not any easier to control in the water than on land. It may be because she stood a few inches taller than her teammates or that she started a few years later than the six- and seven-year-olds on her team. Whatever the case, it was clear that she had plenty of work ahead of her.
Pavlic’s will to be the best at everything she did and her perseverance over early struggles gave her an edge in the pool. She spent most evenings and weekends in the water trying to learn how to control her body. When breaking down the technicalities of swimming, it requires a lot of discipline. One must be aware of every movement their body is making in order to move efficiently through the water, giving Pavlic initial troubles to master the art.
However, her relentless dedication to the sport began to show.
“I remember my very first nationals when I got second in the 50-yard backstroke,” Pavlic smiled as she recalled the moment. “Ursa, my club coach, stood up in front of probably 200 people and yelled, ‘She’s only been swimming for a year!’ It was then that I became so passionate about the sport.”
Not every stroke came as easy as the backstroke to Pavlic, it took nearly three years for her to learn the breaststroke. But it didn’t matter how frustrated she got or how badly she wanted to quit, she kept forging ahead.
The constant fortitude to achieve success has begun to come to fruition during her junior campaign. Pavlic has recorded lifetime-best marks in 100- and 200-yard backstrokes during the 2015-16 season, while nearing top times in various other events with the Big 12 Championships starting Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Similar to English, Pavlic slowly began to fall in love with the sport. Urska continued to push her and help her believe in her potential throughout the next few years. As her times improved she began to see a future in the sport, one that included the opportunity to live out her childhood dreams of going to the U.S.
Recruiting international students is seemingly fairly simple in the sport of swimming. Campbell is able to get online and look up the International Swimming Federation’s (FINA) top-150 times around the world with a click of a button. From there he begins to make connections and pursue prospects.
“At the time we were looking at Pia we had a girl from Slovenia on the team,” Campbell said. “I asked her if she knew Pia and fortunately she did, so I was able to get her contact information. You basically get the kids on your team to get you their email and then you start contacting them and see if they are interested in coming to the U.S.”
After a few Skype calls and ruling out swimming at Arkansas, Pavlic was booking her flight to Kansas.
Unlike her childhood in Slovenia where she spent most of her time trying to cultivate a love for swimming, her time as a Jayhawk has transformed her commitment to the sport.
“Before I came here I never really took care of my body; I never went to sleep an hour earlier just for swimming. I would never not eat that cookie just for swimming,” said Pavlic.
Part of it may be that in Slovenia swimming is more of an individual sport, the work she did or did not put in only affected her, so she put in whatever effort she felt like. But swimming collegiately in the U.S. encompasses more than just the individual, especially at Kansas.
Her first year as a Jayhawk, Pavlic spent much of her time transitioning to the team culture, looking to the seniors on the squad as motherly figures. The second year she became more vocal and began to embrace the team and let go of swimming just for herself. This year she serves as the glue to a team that has arguably the best chemistry of any KU squad.
“When we got first got here, both of us learned that everything is about the team here,” Kuchkarova said. “It was a huge adjustment, but now Pia is the one who cheers on everyone. It’s so funny because in between every set she will be pumping everyone up. I don’t know how she finds so much energy. While everyone else is breathing heavily, gasping for oxygen, she’s yelling, ‘Let’s go guys, we got this.'”
Having 27 teammates alongside her through both the triumphs and challenges has motivated Pavlic to give her all to the sport as she approaches the closing of her junior campaign. The realization that she has one year left to prove herself in the water has reignited the drive that first brought her to America.
Pavlic’s outgoing nature and positive spirit not only contributes to her success in the pool, but it supports her role as a teammate. She is very gregarious, and brings a lot of energy to just about everything she does.
“There have been times in practice where I thought to offer her $20 just to be quiet,” Campbell said with a chuckle. “But we respect that she is on a mission to be the best that she can be. She has a very high ceiling, and she is only beginning to scratch the surface of her abilities.”
On a mission she is. Pavlic has never allowed anyone or anything to stop her from accomplishing what she wants. Her stubborn demeanor may come off cold at times, but both her teammates and coaches know that she is taking everything to heart and will come around in her own time.
Pavlic has increased her appreciation of swimming as a team sport. Unlike the individual nature of her swimming activity in Slovenia, being a part of the Jayhawk team underscores the need to support her teammates.
“There was a situation where I was not having a good meet, and I locked myself into the bathroom almost ready to cry,” Kuchkarova said. “Then Pia noticed that I left the pool and she came after me and started talking to me to support me. It is just crazy that she knows what’s happening with everyone, and she follows how everyone is doing.”
The swimming and diving team hasn’t been Pavlic’s only source of support over the years. Her boyfriend of seven years, Ziga, has kept Pavlic focused even from thousands of miles away. Having been dating since she was just 13 years old, Ziga knows Pavlic in a way that few others do, giving him the ability to encourage his girlfriend in times that no one else knows what to say.
“He (Ziga) is my number one fan besides my family,” Pavlic said. “He’s been a coach for me, but also he’s my best friend. I trust him. I think we trust each other so much that the long distance isn’t as hard as it could be.”
Much like the evolution of her embracing the team, Pavlic has also used the last three years at Kansas to fine-tune her swimming technique. It was evident that the raw talent was there, but her coaches have helped turn Pavlic into a force in the water.
Prior to coming to America, Pavlic was blinded to her own potential in the butterfly; a powerful stroke that she began to learn was rather useful to her swimming career after Campbell gave her no choice but to become a flyer.
“If I would have known that fly was going to do me so much good, I would have started earlier,” Pavlic said. “I have become a totally different swimmer here. Fly has gotten so much easier for me.”
It wasn’t that she wasn’t given similar advice at an early age. Her father had a premonition early on that fly would be her race. He would tell her to include fly practice as an integral part of her training. But it wasn’t until she competed at Kansas that she was able to reflect back on his very keen insight.
Much like her boyfriend, Pavlic’s father has played a large role in shaping the swimmer into who she is today. Once a professional soccer player and now an avid biker, her father has always known what it takes to be a successful athlete on any stage. While dads often seem to know best, Pavlic needed to figure it out on her own.
As she now approaches the Big 12 Championships, Pavlic treads lightly between confidence and cockiness, an important barrier to her hard-working family.
“It is a very thin line between being confident and being cocky. I have always been very afraid of stepping over it,” said Pavlic. “But recently, I have had some very good practices and a very good meet. I feel that when I step in the water now, I am more competitive because I am beginning to see how good I can be.”
Pavlic and freshman Haley Bishop give Kansas a serious 1-2 punch in the butterfly events as the Jayhawks make final preparations for the league meet at Texas’ Jamail Swimming Center. Pavlic will also contribute in KU’s relays and in the individual medley, with the team hoping to repeat its highest finish ever at the Big 12 meet, when the team took second to Texas in 2014.
Pavlic has come a long way since her time 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and will be instrumental to any Jayhawk efforts to close the point gap with the Longhorns. Today, she is integral to the success of the Jayhawk’s swimming and diving program, and does not give a fear of English or any other challenges a second thought.
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