Mariah Garcia sat down at a piano in Fairmount Towers last fall and decided to teach herself how to play.
Four months later, she plays Beethoven, Mozart and Beyonce.
“It keeps me out of trouble,” she said. “Some people go to parties. I’m a homebody.”
Garcia’s rise among discus throwers is just as surprising to some. The Wichita State freshman qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary Round with the nation’s eighth-best throw, 181 feet, 9 inches. Garcia, from Mustang (Okla.) High, won the Class 6A meet with a throw of 144 feet, 4 inches a year ago.
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Garcia set modest expectations for herself and even after popping school-record distances in practice, wasn’t sure if coaches would take her to the first meet of the outdoor season. Once there, she set the WSU record by nine feet with a throw of 175-7.
“Huge, huge surprise,” she said.
Her mother, Kenya Garcia, is not surprised. She gave birth at 16 and watched her daughter surpass expectations. She arrived three months premature and weighing three pounds. She walked at seven months. During Mariah’s first-grade year, Kenya came home to find her daughter teaching herself to read using “Hooked on Phonics.” When Mariah’s high school coach told her she ran too slowly to compete in the sprints, she picked up the discus and started winning meets.
“She’s always been determined and self-sufficient,” Kenya Garcia said. “She wasn’t supposed to be successful, because I had her at an early age. I’m blessed.”
Mariah Garcia came to WSU as a raw and talented athlete with a personal best of 151 feet. She dominated the discus in high school while largely throwing from a standing start. She and her mom used Google to look at spinning techniques, but she couldn’t master the form.
“Just stand and throw,” she said.
Throws coach John Hetzendorf could tell by October that small improvements in her technique paid off with big leaps in distance. He expected big things from her, based on her high school performances, and Garcia progressed more quickly than he expected. At the same time, an introduction to weights strengthened her legs and increased her athletic ability. They worked on improving her balance and positioning as she spun across the 8-foot, 2 1/2-inch discus ring.
“That was the biggest part of her getting across the ring correctly,” he said. “Compared to just doing the standing throw, you have to get to the front of the ring to hit your position.”
Garcia’s innate ability to throw the 2-pound, 3-ounce discus farther than most college athletes is somewhat hard to explain, akin to a quarterback who can put a tight spiral on a pass.
“As far as weight-room strength, she is the weakest girl I have,” Hetzendorf said. “She just has a natural ability to fly the discus and feel it. She’s athletic, and snappy, explosive.”
Garcia’s feel for doing things naturally extends to the piano in her dorm. She watches videos on YouTube and picks up the music, often calling her mother to play the song over the phone when mastered.
“She learns fast,” said teammate Ximena Cazenave, who plays piano with Garcia. “If you like something, you’re going to learn fast and she really likes it.”