REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: Chance meeting changed wrestler's future
By Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
WEST PALM BEACH " Sweat is the language all wrestlers speak. They might barely know one another, barely think like one another, yet they forge a bond based on common anguish. One former world-class wrestler, trying to explain the dynamics, says it goes like this: "Hey, you wrestle? Yes! OK, my brother."
And brothers trust one another.
Avtandil Gogolishvili, from Lanchkhuti in the Republic of Georgia, knew little about Hank Porcher, from West Palm Beach, beyond that he was an American wrestler trying to impress him with the one thing he could say in Georgian: Gamarjoba. All Porcher knew about Gogolishvili was that when Porcher told him, "Hello, my good friend, "he was virtually ignored.
Porcher would learn more later, their paths somehow converging to land them at Forest Hill High, coaching wrestling. But first, Porcher would hear that Gogolishvili had gifts perhaps worthy of Olympic gold, gifts that vanished with the flash of a machine gun in 1992. Georgian soldiers frowned on even peaceful political protests, and when one caught up to Gogolishvili, he delivered that message with a bullet to Gogolishvili's left ankle. Bones weren't all that shattered. Months later, Gogolishvili could only watch the Barcelona Games as two men he had routinely defeated walked away with gold and silver medals.
Eight years later, when Porcher met Gogolishvili at a tournament in Germany, blind luck led them to the conclusion that, back in West Palm Beach, they had a mutual friend, a "brother "who would join them in a quest to change a family's life.
Please deliver this, Gogolishvili told Porcher, handing him a sheet of paper covered with hastily scribbled words. The writing was in Georgian, so Porcher didn't even know if he was holding it upside down. Porcher assumed it was merely a letter for Zviad Abuseridze, Gogolishvili's former Georgian teammate.
What Porcher actually held was Gogolishvili's future.
"I love my country, but I would like to go to America, "wrote Gogolishvili (pronounced go-go-la-SHVEE-lee). "You can help me find somebody who can make for me visa? I met some American people in Germany and I think they liked me.... I know one good person. His name is Hank."
Today, you can find Porcher, 43, Gogolishvili, 40, and Abuseridze, 30, at Forest Hill High or anyplace that has a wrestling mat " coaching, teaching, tossing each other around or kidding about who stole moves from whom. Sometimes, they reflect on the road that brought them together, a paper trail 2 1/2 years long.
To say Gogolishvili feels fortunate doesn't do it justice.
He sought a temporary visa for himself, figuring he would bring the rest of his family later.
He received permanent residency for himself, his wife and two young daughters.
Gogolishvili broke the bank to do it.
Porcher gave him money. A home. A job.
How can you repay that? Gogolishvili gave Porcher a singlet he wore in the Olympics.
Gogolishvili's wife, Nana, searches for words to express her gratitude, knowing it's fruitless.
"I think God made Hank, "she says. "How can I say? God's plan was No. 1 person."
A protest and a bullet
Feb. 2, 1992. The story of how the man known as Avto or "Coach G "became Porcher's assistant coach at Forest Hill begins then in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. Thousands clashed with soldiers to protest the ouster of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, but the media ignored it. Hardly anyone heard about the famous Georgian wrestler whose Olympic dream died.
A glimpse of Gogolishvili " just before trouble erupted " can be seen on a video clip posted on the Internet (http://homepage.mac.com/rsiradze/Evil_in_Georgia/iMovieTheater39.html). The young man in the denim jacket ran when the gunfire began.
"Why do you walk here? Why do you do this? "the soldiers asked as they punched him. Then, like now, Gogolishvili had monstrously broad shoulders, chiseled biceps and a viselike grip; they had machine guns.
He ran to a subway station, hoping to find a train to safety. Instead, he found two more soldiers. As he scaled a fence, one fired from point-blank range, shattering his tibia.
"I was on the ground, I think right now they cut my leg off, "Gogolishvili says. "I think it's gone."
Doctors didn't amputate, but they told him to forget about wrestling. They inserted pins around the injury to apply pressure on the 1 1/2 inches of destroyed bone.
He couldn't walk for nearly 1 1/2 years.
"My sports career is broken, "he says.
A simple hard-luck athletic tale, this isn't.
"When I was a baby, I watch his wrestling, "Abuseridze says. "He was unlucky legend. Not legend, but unlucky legend. One hundred percent, we know nothing, but 99 percent, he would be champion."
Abuseridze says this because at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, American Kevin Jackson won gold in the 180.5-pound class by defeating the Unified Team's Elmadi Jabrailov in overtime. Gogolishvili was 2-0 against Jackson. He was 4-0 against Jabrailov.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he was as good as anybody I've ever wrestled, "says Jackson, coach of the U.S. Olympic team. "It's unfortunate that he didn't get as many opportunities as I did to represent his country at the world championships or the Olympic Games. He definitely would have been a threat."
Relaxing in the wrestling room after Forest Hill's practice, Porcher asks Gogolishvili, "Does that make you angry?"
"Angry? "Gogolishvili replies, puzzled.
"Angry because your sports career is broken? I would be angry, "Porcher says.
"Angry, no, "Gogolishvili says. "Understand, I no can change nothing. It's difficult to say I become champion. Olympics is special tournament. Understand? Many people can win."
Besides, Gogolishvili points out, there are bigger issues.
"They can kill, "he says of the soldiers. "I lucky because I have my leg. I can walk."
It rarely hurts today. By 1996, the leg had healed enough that Gogolishvili qualified for the Atlanta Olympics, but it wasn't strong enough for him to compete at his former standard.
The unlucky legend placed 10th.
Coaching in code
When Porcher took over this season at Forest Hill, his alma mater, he talked administrators into hiring Gogolishvili.
"How do you know what he's saying? "senior Ricky Espana, a 130-pounder, often hears from opponents.
Forest Hill's wrestlers understand. Nobody else is supposed to.
"Some of the moves don't translate well from Russian and Georgian to English, so a lot of moves, Avto names after famous wrestlers who do the move well, "Porcher says. "He yells 'Khabelov,' a world champion from the Soviet Union, and Ashley (Charles), the Haitian kid, knows to do his move. It's a code we've developed."
Hearing this, Gogolishvili looks bewildered.
"Code, "Porcher repeats. "Spy. KGB."
"If he yelled the name of the move, the kid'll be looking for it, "says Charles, who used one such maneuver for a 23-second pin at the county championships.
If it weren't for one of Gogolishvili's strange moves, there's no telling where he might be.
Abuseridze, a former Soviet champion, and Porcher were training for the Veterans World Championships in Germany in 2000 when Abuseridze nailed Porcher with an unusual arm throw.
"It will work against kids, "Porcher said, "but you can't do that on a good wrestler."
"My friend did it to Kevin Jackson! "Abuseridze said. "Five points."
"Yeah, right, "Porcher said. When Abuseridze got irritated, Porcher relented: "OK, you're right. Your friend threw Kevin Jackson. "And Porcher pretty much forgot about it.
One other fateful thing happened before Porcher left for Germany: Abuseridze taught Porcher how to say, "Hello, my good friend "in Georgian.
Once in Germany, Porcher was in one of two parallel lines for weigh-ins when he noticed the wrestler next to him holding a Georgian passport, so he tested his new language skills. "Gamarjoba, "Gogolishvili replied, in the least interested monotone he could muster.
"But after we get done with weigh-ins, I see him outside, "Porcher says. "Kevin Jackson happens to be our coach, and I see him and Kevin talking, hugging and stuff. So after he leaves, I say to Kevin, 'You know that guy?' He goes, 'Yeah!'
"You ever wrestle him? "Porcher asked. "Can you tell me some stuff about him?"
"I can't tell you nothing, "Jackson said. "He beat my butt both times."
Then Jackson said something curious: "He does have this one little funky arm throw."
And that's how Porcher made the connection between Gogolishvili and Abuseridze. The only problem was, how to convey that to Gogolishvili. He tried dropping the name, "Zviad, "only to learn there's a Zviad on every corner in Georgia. So Porcher pointed to his chest.
"I had a shirt that had Florida on it, "Porcher says. "He figured out I knew Zviad, and he got a pencil and paper."
Gogolishvili and Abuseridze hadn't spoken in about four years. But they were wrestlers. Brothers, still.
In his letter, Gogolishvili explained that it was time to leave Georgia, where unemployment was rampant But first, Porcher and Gogolishvili had business on the mat.
"He beat the crud out of me, "Porcher says. "But throughout the tournament, we would talk. I would use real bad Russian, and he would always correct me and tell me the Georgian way of saying it.
"Wrestling's unique in that it's a brutally honest sport. Even if you don't speak the other guy's language, you understand where he is and what he's been through. There's always a camaraderie."
Journey to South Florida
Wanting to bring Gogolishvili to the United States was one thing. Doing it was altogether different.
Porcher, a commercial real estate developer who last year ran for city commission in West Palm Beach, has two biological children. He and wife Stacie also adopted Tenley, who is Chinese, and Granite, who is black. On June 17, 2003, the Porchers' melting pot expanded. Gogolishvili, his wife and children had boarded a bus in Georgia bound for the airport. It broke down twice.
Medical exams and other last-minute costs proved more expensive than expected. At the airport, an agent asked for even more money.
"Please, "Gogolishvili said. "I have two children here."
The agent handed Gogolishvili some of his money back. He didn't want the girls to go hungry.
More than 24 hours later, the opaque double doors at Miami International Airport opened. Out stepped Avto and Nana Gogolishvili with daughters Mariam, now 4, and Ketevan, now 2 1/2. Everyone hugged and piled into Porcher's Ford Excursion, so excited, it wasn't until they reached Broward County that Abuseridze and Porcher realized that the family was famished.
Porcher pulled off I-95 at Stirling Road in Hollywood. The golden arches.
"When we retell the story 20 years from now, we can always say, 'Hey, the first meal I ate in America was at McDonald's,' " Porcher says.
The Gogolishvilis stayed in the Porchers' guest house for 10 months. They now live in a duplex Porcher owns, the idea being that Gogolishvili will manage the property when they can rent part of it. Gogolishvili also works construction and has a landscape service.
Not long ago, Gogolishvili tried to repay $2,000 Porcher gave him when he arrived.
"He said, 'No, Avto, maybe when you're old, you can maybe give me money,' " Gogolishvili says.
So Gogolishvili and Abuseridze gave Porcher something he can't give back.
"I give Georgian last name, "Abuseridze says. "Porchershivili. Because he's really a man."
Porcher still gives Gogolishvili flak about their chilly first conversation, and Gogolishvili's devilish grin in response proves that, sometimes, words aren't necessary. "What else you want me to say? "Gogolishvili tells Porcher.
Still, Gogolishvili reflects on how far the three have come since that day. And how far his family has come.
"This maybe I can't dream, "he says