Special to the Mirror-Spectator
PLAISTOW, N.H. — What does a New Hampshire high school wrestling coach have in common with one of the most beloved Armenian kings in history? Simple: they both excelled in wrestling.
Barry Chooljian is a longtime wrestling coach at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow. In his almost three-decade coaching career, he has amassed a trophy pile that rivals Tom Brady’s. In fact, just last season he passed 500 career victories as a coach, a number few have reached. His impressive resume includes 21 Division 1 New Hampshire state championships, 10 New England titles and a National High School Coaching Association’s Wrestling Coach of the Year award.
Tiridates III, before becoming King of Armenia in 287 AD, was an Olympic champion in wrestling at the 265th Olympiad in 281 AD. Tiridates would later go on to make Christianity the state religion in 301 AD.
Wrestling has its roots going back millennia in Armenia. One of the earliest forms of wrestling — known as Kokh — originates in Armenia. This now-defunct sport was often accompanied with Armenian folk music and dancing, while the participants wore traditional Armenian clothing. Kokh left a lasting legacy in the region, influencing the creation of the well-known modern Soviet martial art called Sambo (short for SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya), which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons,” as well as solidifying the importance of wrestling in Armenia.
Today that legacy is very much apparent. In addition to the numerous Olympic wrestlers that come out of Armenia, Armenians from across the diaspora continue the tradition of the world’s oldest sport.
Wrestling is a simple sport. There are no balls, nets or baskets; just two men and one mat. But it is difficult to master, as it requires a mix of strength, stamina, skill and willpower. The rules vary slightly between the different variants of the sport, but the main objective is to pin the opponent by getting him on his back and holding his shoulder blades on the mat for the required period of time. Pinning the opponent results in an automatic victory. To win otherwise requires one to score more points than the opponent by the end of the match. Wrestlers can earn points by taking down the opponent and maintaining control once on the mat, or escaping from the opponent when down on the mat, for example.
From Wrestler to Coach
Chooljian got his start in wrestling by following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Mark and Robert, who had been wrestlers at Timberlane High before him. He would eventually go on to wrestle at the Division 1 collegiate level at the University of Rhode Island, before heading back to Timberlane where he became head coach of the wrestling program and continues in that role to this day.
Chooljian has coached numerous successful wrestlers at Timberlane, one of them being Eric Bradley. Bradley, who is half Armenian on his mother’s side (Fundeklian), graduated from Timberlane and went on to become a two-time NCAA Division One Wrestling All-American at Penn State. In addition to his wrestling accolades, he is also a National Collegiate Boxing Champion and was recently attempting a career in mixed martial arts. In an interview with Hyefighters.com, Bradley stated that Chooljian was one of the strongest influences in his life and someone who “molded me into the type of athlete who never expects anything but victory.”
In addition to his high school team, Chooljian also takes an interest in wrestling at the Olympic level. In fact, he was a spectator at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he watched with pride as Armen Nazaryan claimed the gold medal for Armenia in the 52-kilogram Greco-Roman category for wrestling. Nazaryan was the first Olympic champion to come out of post-Soviet Armenia in the modern Olympic Games, and is one of six Olympic medalists in wrestling from Armenia.
Chooljian said he is pleased with the way the sport is growing, but one of the biggest challenges it faces is the need to “market it better” and find a way to draw more people into it. In the United States, the sport is very popular at the high school and college level, but not really beyond those years, unlike similar contact sports such as boxing or mixed martial arts.
Professional wrestling – the one where they hit each other with chairs and the outcomes are pre-determined – is far more popular then amateur wrestling in the U.S.
In Armenia, the story is different. Wrestling stars, while not well-paid professional athletes, are highly visible and beloved. Chooljian said, “Armenians value their Olympic athletes. It is a source of great national pride for them. They aspire to be wrestlers, or boxers, not [American] football players or basketball players.” The Wrestling Federation of Armenia, founded in 1996, oversees the training of wrestling prospects across Armenia, which has dozens of wrestling schools and thousands of elite wrestlers.
Although wrestling is wildly popular in Armenia and in many other countries, the sport faces challenges.
In 2013, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to eliminate wrestling from the lineup of the summer games, effective 2020, during the Tokyo Olympics. The IOC cited that the decision was made due to low public interest, lackluster TV audiences, difficult-to-understand rules and the desire to add a different sport to the Olympic slate. But ironically, this decision brought wrestling more attention than ever before and the decision was reversed.
Chooljian said, “One of the real positives that came out of that [decision to scrap wrestling], was the number of people across the country and internationally who rallied around the sport of wrestling. People that weren’t even fans of wrestling rallied to the cause of reinstating the sport.” He continued, “It is one of the original sports [in the Olympics], and the heritage of wrestling, it’s really what the Olympics are all about.”
“Another thing that people realized — and that the IOC realized before reversing their decision of removing wrestling from the Olympics — was that wrestlers are not people that give in easily. Like the Armenians, you can knock us down, but we’ll get right back up.”