RIO DE JANEIRO (Excellesports.com) — As a young gymnast, Houry Gebeshian remembers having two particular role models. One was close to home, an older girl named Nicole Langevin who trained at her gym. The other came from the biggest gymnastics stage, 1996 US Olympian Dominique Moceanu.
“[Moceanu] was the small, Eastern European girl who was rock solid and her favorite event was beam. I felt like I could relate to her,” Gebeshian said in a phone interview with Excelle Sports.
But this is where her storyline diverges from the usual narrative for a female gymnast. It is only now, 20 years after seven-year-old Gebeshian saw herself in Dominique Moceanu, that she finds herself with another similarity to her childhood idol: the status of Olympian.
“I’m a mature adult who has a full-time job who is funding myself, who is coaching myself to make my dream a reality,” Gebeshian summarized. She followed the reverse trajectory of most female gymnasts: after finishing up a successful NCAA career at Iowa and graduating in 2011, she decided to give competing internationally a go.
Now, she has made history as the first female Armenian gymnast representing the country.
Aram Arkun of the Armenian Mirror-Spectator interviewed Gebeshian in March (http://www.mirrorspectator.com/2016/03/17/hooting-for-houry-striving-to-be-the-first-female-gymnast-to-represent-armenia-in-the-olympics/).
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.
Armenia has very little in terms of a women’s gymnastics program, and has never been represented by a female gymnast at the Olympics. Gebeshian set her sights on becoming the first. “I am so thankful that the opportunity to compete for the Republic of Armenia came about, as it has brought me back to my Armenian heritage and has given me a sense of community and national purpose,” Gebeshian told the Gymternet. She was granted dual citizenship and looked toward London 2012.
But her elite debut did not go as hoped. At World Championships in 2011, she competed through a stress fracture in her heel and placed a disappointing 128th. That left her the first reserve for the 2012 Olympic Test Event, the final gymnastics qualifier for the London Olympics. She had missed qualifying by just over a tenth. Gebeshian thought her Olympic dream was over, ended by the sum of a single deduction.
Disheartened, she avoided watching the Olympics in 2012 altogether and went off to graduate school. But encouragement from her now-fiancé, a fellow former athlete, gave her the push she needed to give it another shot.
A central figure in her comeback was none other than her childhood hero, Dominique Moceanu. Gebeshian met Moceanu at World Championships in 2011. Moceanu’s husband, a podiatric surgeon, invited Gebeshian to his clinic in Cleveland for a clinical rotation when he learned she was considering becoming a physician’s assistant. She accepted that fateful invitation, and it was there that she met her now-fiancé, who encouraged her to take up gymnastics again. Moceanu mentored Gebeshian when she finished graduate school and returned to Cleveland in 2014, this time to make it her home during her second run at the Olympics.
So it was a healthier and more experienced Gebeshian who made the trip to her second World Championships in 2015. There, she finished with a high enough ranking to qualify to the 2016 Olympic Test Event. And with a strong showing at the Test Event last April, she finally secured her Olympic berth at the age of 26.
To get to this point, Gebeshian has been balancing working 24- and 16-hour shifts as a physician’s assistant with her training every week. She coaches herself, laying out her training plans on an Excel spreadsheet.
“I’m the one that’s pushing myself, that’s motivating myself, that’s keeping myself in check to make sure that I accomplish [my] goals. There’s no one else to blame, really. It’s all on me,” Gebeshian said. Instead of shrinking away from that pressure and the loneliness of solo training—she puts most of her hours in the gym before regular classes — she views the challenge as a good thing. “It’s made me a better athlete and made me mature a lot.”
Gebeshian’s story and goals are different than those of the gymnasts she will compete against in Rio. But that doesn’t make them any less ambitious. She hopes to be the foundation for a genuine women’s gymnastics program in Armenia. “By helping me achieve my goal, we can continue to develop this budding program, and ensure our team’s presence as a legitimate contender in the international gymnastics scene,” she states on her GoFundMe page.
When she competes at major international competitions, there is a refreshing quality to Gebeshian’s gymnastics. “Teaching yourself a new skill is near impossible,” she told the Gymternet. Her situation takes her out of the difficulty race and frees her to do simpler, clean gymnastics. “I don’t have the hardest routines but I’m going out there and doing the best I absolutely can for the routines that I have, and I try to perfect them to a T.” That’s apparent in her attention to the smaller details, all the way down to her pointed toes during her tumbling on floor.
For her beam and floor choreography, Gebeshian found herself reconnecting with another figure from her past: Nicole Langevin, the cool older girl at her gym she admired growing up. Langevin now runs Precision Choreography and designed Gebeshian’s beam and floor routines. “Every routine is supposed to tell a story,” Gebeshian said. And who better to help tell Gebeshian’s incredible story than an old friend?
She also invented a new move, which she performed perfectly on Sunday, August 7.
“[My floor routine] is the story of the struggle that I had to go through in order to get where I am now. You can see me reaching for a goal that is just out of reach, failing, crumbling, twisting into a dark place, but then growing from the experience, thriving, and reestablishing myself into the new, mature, and prepared me. It signifies that my time is right now and it was not then.”
“I wanted to help people,” Gebeshian said when asked what drew her to medicine. This might be the most direct connection between her seemingly disparate gymnastics and professional careers. Gebeshian is looking to build something bigger than herself with her Olympic experience.
“I hope that people really get inspired [by my story] to do whatever it is they love to do or want to do.”
She is accepting donations through GoFundMe to fund the budding Armenian women’s gymnastics program. And just as she was inspired by Dominique Moceanu during the 1996 Olympics, there is no doubt Gebeshian will inspire a few young dreamers of her own when she takes the floor in Rio, in the culmination of her unconventional Olympic journey.
Follow Gebeshian on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ArmenianGymnast/?fref=nf