WATERTOWN — Armenian women in the Soviet Union were trained as professional gymnasts, but after the independence of the Republic of Armenia, only male gymnasts prepared for the Olympics. Now there is an Armenian American, Houry Gebeshian, who is very close to qualifying as the first Armenian female gymnast for the upcoming summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She has had to overcome obstacles to do so, but her desire to serve as a positive role model for young Armenian women has given her extra willpower.
Gebeshian was born in Auburndale, Mass. in 1989, but obtained Armenian citizenship in 2010 to be eligible to compete in Armenia’s name. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio but was visiting the Boston area recently to participate in the Starlight Invitational competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sponsored by her old hometown gym.
Gebeshian said she has self-funded almost all of her training expenses until now through her fulltime job as a physician’s assistant in the labor and delivery floor at the Cleveland Clinic. Consequently, she cannot devote as much time as she would like to preparation. She said, “I only practice 16 to 20 hours a week, compared to other Olympians who do 30 to 40 hours a week.”
She also does not have access to the coaches and special gyms that others have. Instead, she said, “I coach myself. I am in the gym every single day. I create all of my training plans, and diet plans and conditioning plans. I create 6 months of routines and then follow it.”
Armenia does provide her with a coach who will go to competitions with her when she represents the country. He is a men’s coach, since Armenia does not have a women’s program, and everything Houry does must be coordinated through the men’s program.
Theoretically, Gebeshian has another disadvantage, as she is, at 26 years old, around 10 years older than most of her competitors. She explained, “This is not like any other sport. There is a lot of pounding of the body, which eventually breaks down. You spend 5 hours or so a day in the gym and it is a lot on the joints and bones. I would be lying if I said my body doesn’t hurt every day.”
However, she does have the advantage of experience, and there are a handful of other women who compete at the Olympic level at ages more advanced than hers.
Gebeshian, like many others, began gymnastics very young. She said, “My mom loves to tell this story. When I was a kid, I used to wiggle myself out of my car seat and somehow get into the front seat. My mother would yell in surprise, ‘what happened?’ I was very active, and always moving, so she took me to the local YMCA.” There they recognized that she had some potential, and said she should go to a gymnastics gym. Houry started at Massachusetts Gymnastics Center in Waltham, and loved it ever since.
As a child, she practiced one or two days a week, and then built up to five days a week, four hours a day. Again, in college at the University of Iowa, she was only allowed 20 hours a week, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules. She competed for the Iowa Hawkeyes from 2008, and in 2010 was the Big Ten balance beam champion as a junior. In 2011, she advanced to the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championship as an individual all-rounder.
It was while she was in college that the opportunity to compete for the Republic of Armenia for the Olympics arose. Her family was very Armenian in spirit. Houry exclaimed, “I was immersed in Armenian patriotism!” Her father was born in Anjar, Lebanon and her mother in Damascus, Syria, but both came to the US for higher education.
Said Gebeshian, “I was born and raised in an Armenian household. Armenian was my first language.”
“When I was much younger,” she noted, “my mom said you should do it, but I said I am not good enough.” In 2009, her father’s friend, Paul Varadian, who was serving as a liaison to the Armenian Olympic program, said that Armenia was looking for more female representation, and suggested Houry should try to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Her family financially supported her attempt in 2011, but, in part due to a stress fracture in her heel, she only made it to third reserve.
After this disappointment, she took a three-year break from gymnastics to go to graduate school in Wake Forest University in North Carolina and get a medical master’s degree. She restarted training about a year and a half ago during the summer of 2014. She said that though she had her career as a physician’s assistant, she decided, “I have goals, and the best way to achieve them is by example.”
Houry is not only trying to represent Armenia in the Olympics. She hopes that if she qualifies, this will encourage people to devote more funding and resources to develop an Armenian women’s team in gymnastics, as well as to improve support for the men’s team, which is very successful but poorly funded.
She explained that it takes many years to train new gymnasts from childhood, and unlike in the Soviet period, independent Armenia only has a recreation program for girls. Initially, she said, a good approach for Armenia would be to attract girls in countries like the US who are naturally talented and are already being trained. “Now, everywhere I go,” Houry said, “I am trying to recruit other people, trying to get other people out, showing it is possible to do all this. It is not impossible, whatever your dream is. You just have to do it. Everywhere I try to spread my story and inspire the youth — and the adults, and recruit as much as I can. I think I am getting a bit of a following.”
She has succeeded in finding other Armenian Americans interested in doing what she is doing. They are of varying ages and backgrounds, scattered in different parts of the US. Eventually Houry would like to be a mentor or head of the national Armenian women’s team. She said, “I would try to get programs started and building up in Armenia.”
Houry has a GoFundMe page (www.Gofundme.com-hootingforhoury) which is already raising funding and getting equipment for the Armenian gymnastic team. She is supporting the existing men’s team as well as working towards creating a women’s one. Houry declared that the members of the men’s team “are such great athletes. It is amazing to see how much they can do with the limited resources they have.”
She has already accomplished a lot over the past year or so. It was difficult to get back into shape. She said, “I would say it took me at last 6 or 7 months to really start the process of reteaching myself all the things I knew how to do. It was harder because I was teaching myself. I had no coach.” She competes every six months or so in big competitions for Armenia, like the European one in April 2015. Otherwise, she goes to meets in the US for fun and practice. She also uses the local opportunities for recruiting for the Armenian team.
The first weekend of this March, for example, she went to a large sports festival hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Columbus, Ohio which had a gymnastics competition. She did a lot of networking and set up a booth to tell her story. She also met Schwarzenegger briefly.
The main qualifying event for the summer Olympics in Rio is coming up in April. Houry was admitted to this final qualifier due to a strong performance at the first round in the 2015 World Championships at Glasgow last October.
There are 35 Olympic spots for individuals representing countries like Armenia which do not have a team. All big countries can field teams with five athletes, but only 12 teams in all can compete in the Olympics. In addition to the team competitions, there is an individual all-around Olympic competition, and also a competition for event specialists, in which Houry theoretically could participate.
There are only 36 individuals who qualified to compete for the 35 spots at Glasgow. Thanks to her determination and talent, Houry has an extremely good chance of making it, and making history for Armenia.