My name is Mara Griva. I am from Latvia (definitely google it if you are not sure where it is) and I was a student-athlete at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 2011 to 2013. Even though it seems like a fairly short period of time, during this time, some of the best memories were made. I also met people that I still call my close friends (even if we are an ocean apart) and I also learned some very valuable lessons. One of those lessons is that progress/success comes with a lot of ups and downs.
Nebraska, here I come
When did I decide that I wanted to study in the US? Well, probably, sometime in high school. I come from a fairly small city (population of roughly 35k), and my family has always been into track and field. My dad has been a coach for a very long time (coached some very successful athletes), my mom was doing track back in the day, and now three out of my four siblings do it (one is already an Olympian). It is safe to say that track has been a part of my everyday life for quite some years and I always knew that some day, I wanted to be a professional track and field athlete. However, I was still in high school and you obviously never know when/if you might get an injury that could stop these athletic dreams in a heartbeat. So, education has also always been very important to me. I knew I wanted to go to the US to study and compete not only because I saw it as a way to improve my athletic ability and get a very good education, but also as a way to broaden my horizon – to see a different culture and how things worked in another part of the world.
It took several months to do all the paperwork and everything, but in August of 2010, I was set to travel to Nebraska to start school. However, it was not until I was packing that I truly realized I was leaving. This is when it hit me and that I was actually doing it! But there was no turning back. I really wanted to go but there were just a lot of questions on my mind of how it is going to be, if I am going to like it, if this will all work out for me, studying in a different language, being in a different educational system, training with a different coach and this new coaching style?!
My first year
After arriving in Nebraska, it took some time for me to make friends and to get used to things (it always takes for me some time to start trusting people), however, I think that was the right pace for me – I did not want to force anything. Early on, I realized that even though several things were very difficult such as talking in a different language or getting used to totally different practices, I really enjoyed where I was and what I was doing. I liked the people I was meeting, my classes, and also my coaches. However, as you know, not everything goes as planned all the time. So, whenever I was not doing that well in practices, I started to pay more attention to the things I needed to do to improve.
It was a very intense preparation before my first indoor season. I was not happy with all my performances and although coaches seemed to be happy with my results, most of the time I expected more of myself. Soon came the first conference event. I did not know much about those because back home there is no such thing as competing for your university like it is in the US. Only later I realized what a big deal it was. My first indoor and outdoor conference (Big12), I actually managed to win both of my events and get the conference titles – two indoors and two outdoors (long and triple jump). I also competed at nationals both indoors and outdoors. I was happy, but at the same time – hungry for more. I saw so many things I could improve on so I just could not wait to do so. In addition, now the pressure was on because I had raised the standard for myself quite high.
After that first school year was over, I went home for the summer. I was not done competing, even though I had been competing for almost five month nonstop. Luckily, I was injury free and showed really good results in my competitions. Towards the end of August, it was time for me to go back to school. I could not wait to come back because of how well my freshman year actually went. I was definitely not used to that much recognition, but at the same time, I was very grateful for all that and it was a motivation to do better.
New year, new expectations
Fast forward, here I was getting ready for my second year and hoping and thinking that the year would be better than the last one. I was close to the Olympic standard the previous year, so that was also on the back of my mind. Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. The preparation and tests that we did at practices were getting better and giving me high hopes, but at the very first meet, I injured my lower back. I kept on competing through pain but the injury did not go away and ended up getting much worse. At the conference (we had just switched to the Big Ten), I still placed 2nd in long jump and even managed to win the triple jump, however, on my 5th attempt, I pulled my hamstring and could only hope that no one else would pass me. That was my only conference title that year.
Things kept getting worse in a chain reaction. It was 2012 and the stakes were high – there were not only the conference championships and NCAAs where I wanted to perform well, but it was also the year of the Olympics and I did not want to accept the fact that my Olympic dream would just stay a dream. This made me work really hard at times when my back felt a bit better. Now, I realize how much I just needed to rest and recover instead of making everything worse. Easier said than done, right?! After such a successful first year, it was hard to be okay to not get those points for my team, it was hard to accept that I had to pull out of NCAAs, and later on – hard to swallow that I would be watching the Olympics on TV. On the bright side, my sister and boyfriend had already qualified for the 2012 Summer Olympics, so I had at least some people to cheer for.
My final year
Then came my third and final year (yes, I was eligible to compete for three and not four years). To sum it up, I gave it some time for my body to heal and also did a lot of different treatments. In the end, I was finally injury free which I appreciated more than ever. I was able to keep doing what I loved while also getting my degree, which I cannot say I enjoyed any less. The results were not quite as they were my first year (even though they were very close), but I did manage to get another four titles that year, also becoming First-team All-American again. This was really the best closure of my “Husker days” and I was so appreciative of all the opportunities and people that I had met throughout this period. I also learned to pay more attention to my health and to not take it for granted. To this day, I still have my awards nicely put on the shelf that not only remind me of certain competitions but also of the teamwork it took to get there. I never felt like I was doing it myself – there were always people around helping me and that is the most valuable in my eyes.
Because Nebraska had become so dear to me, I decided to stay there for longer to pursue my Masters degree (MBA) while also continuing to train and compete in Europe during the summers. I did not feel like I had done everything I could so quitting was not even on my mind. After getting my degree, I returned back to Latvia to practice full-time with my dad (aka coach) alongside my three siblings. I am now at the point where I really appreciate the opportunity to do what I really love and to try to reach my full potential, especially since it is with my closest people by my side. There are still ups and downs, but I have learned to accept it as a part of the process. I know I am where I have always wanted to be, and that is why all the hard work is worth it to me. I realize that you can be an athlete for a very limited time so I try to enjoy every moment of it while I can. “Try” is the keyword here. In order to reach those results, it requires very consistent year-to-year performances. However, later on I do not want to look back and think “What if…”. Every experience has gotten me to the point I am now and I am not stopping now.