This was part of a series of articles published in the September 5 Special Edition of the Armenian Weekly honoring the AYF Olympics.
When the call was received to share my thoughts from a coach’s perspective, I must say it was very humbling. As you read through this story of my AYF Olympic experiences over the last four decades, I mention several folks who have all guided me along the way.
In 1987, I recalled my first encounter with a Providence coach and the AYF in the spring of 1977. That was when I bumped into a grade school friend, Roy DePalma, whose mother was Armenian and for whom I would later serve as the best man at his wedding. Roy’s cousin, Haig “Juny” Markarian Jr. was coaching the Sts. Vartanantz Church basketball team which was practicing in the same gym on the same night that my friends and I were also renting the gym. He was the coach, the leader, the man who took the bull by the horns and got the job done. Juny asked if I played softball or basketball, and I responded with an energetic “yes.”
In some ways I felt like I always wanted to be part of this team. I remember listening to the results of the AYF Olympics on the Armenian Radio Hour when the teams went to Los Angeles, Detroit, Montreal and Toronto back in the 70s. I used to see the guys on the church teams wearing their jackets proudly at the church bazaars. I always wanted to share some part of that experience. I shudder to think what I would be doing now if the church was renting that gym on a different night. From this experience, I strongly advise our youth to take advantage of what is offered to you. Be a vital part of your AYF Junior and Senior chapters as well as your church community. Learn the history of your people, so when someone asks you what you are, you can tell them that you are an Armenian, a son or a daughter of Noah, a survivor in a race of people that has lasted since before the birth of Christ.
Thirty-three years later, I consider myself fortunate to follow the giant footsteps of people like coaches Juny Markarian, Peter “Doc” Bedrosian, Paul Haroian Sr., John Takian, John Varadian, Mal Varadian and Haig Varadian. Fred Hintlian, Charlie Ajootian, Archie Markarian, Mike Toumasian, Bob and Shooshan Tutunjian, Mike Varadian, Harry Khatchadourian, Garry Giragosian, Paul Chobanian, Mike Mangassarian, Paul Varadian and Ken Topalian have been instrumental as well.
Early on in the summer coaches and athletes of all levels show up a few nights a week and sometimes on weekends to practice and prepare for AYF Olympics. For kids who have grown up in an Armenian home where AYF Olympics is tradition, it’s an easy sell when the search is on to put a solid team together. For other potential athletes, it might involve attending their meets, checking with their parents and coaches and then inviting them to join the chapter and compete on Labor Day weekend.
Some athletes remain active and have even gone on to the chapter executive level. Others have introduced their own children to the AYF, which is built on five pillars—each one vital to its success.
The chapter’s pep rally is an annual tradition where alumni, athletes and families encourage each other to do their best, stay safe and remember that they are representing the community. Our priest also blesses the athletes ahead of their travels to Olympics.
Before you know it, the weekend has arrived. Athlete success varies; some vow to work harder next year, others are thrilled to do their best and earn a point or two, while the rest are blessed with God-given talents and do quite well.
Tennis, golf and swimming fill the Friday schedule. The goal is to get through this day and still be in position to make a run for it on Sunday. Our team strategy encourages everyone’s participation to earn any points possible leading up to the final tally. Tennis is a long grueling day where just five points are earned. We have had some success in golf and had some great swimmers too. The swim relays lead to many points. Did I mention every point matters?
Summer Saturday mornings are reserved for softball practice and even though this event doesn’t earn points, the competition is usually fierce. Should our team do well, it’s a long arduous day battling the opponent and the sun. Returning to the hotel whether we’ve won and have donned the winning shirts or not and the response of the crowd of athletes and guests is part of the Olympic experience. At the end of a satisfying Saturday and a short rest, it’s time for the annual team dinner with family members.
Robert and David Najarian were there every year like clockwork at the softball tournament. I recall a close play at second base in New Jersey which most of the team members thought was a bad call. I saw it as Robert did but went out to “argue” the play just the same. During a brief conversation, I let him know I knew the call was right but wanted the team to know that I wanted to give them the effort just the same. He smiled, and I went back to the bench.
The Providence AYF Olympic team was “dormant” for a few years. In the early 1980s, Ken Topalian, Diana Varadian and I resurrected our team. We assembled a massive team of 59 athletes and went up against a powerhouse Boston team of just over 20 athletes in the 1983 AYF Olympics in Providence. While we came in second, this was the start of something special. Ken and I still work together after all these years, along with Mike Varadian, Bob Tutunjian and Mike Mangassarian. We still knock on doors and reach out to Armenian athletes whose names appear in the paper in the events we offer.
Over the decades our teams generally have been present and accounted for carrying on a tradition since the AYF Olympics began in Brockton in 1934. We have run up against some buzz saws in Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia who all had the same goal in mind: to do their first-place chapter dance at the Sunday night Olympics Ball.
In 2009, Philadelphia came to Providence with high hopes. The Sebouhs were loaded in just about every event. They looked like a college team. I remember taking a ride out to the track to check on things and there they were, 40 plus, getting familiar with the venue and doing whatever they could to claim the prize. They had a tent flown in Sunday morning and under it were trainers, video personnel, coaches and scorers. They were intimidating with their matching warmups and uniforms, but we had our plans as well. It came down to the relays, as a full house at Cranston West cheered on our runners. Philly’s plans didn’t pan out that time as we outscored them by a handful of points. Weekends like these are firmly etched in my mind.
When the competition is over, it’s time for another Providence tradition: go back to the hotel and crash for a short while before heading to the coach’s room for pizza, soda and camaraderie. Parents pop in and share memories of the past. Then we get dressed up for the Grand Ball to celebrate everyone, knowing we have done our part to keep the flame burning for another year.
Some say our best athletes are big fish in a small pond. That may be true, but the superstars I have witnessed have been mighty impressive. One in particular comes to mind. Fred Hintlian of Boston was a runner, hurdler and swimmer who gathered 27 gold medals in the 28 events he competed in. Fred is an even greater person than an athlete.
Recently, I’ve only been able to attend the 2012 (Boston) and 2015 (Providence) AYF Olympics because of family commitments. As mentor Mal Varadian always said, “Family comes first.” While I may not have been there in person, I was fortunate and grateful to have coaches and members keep in touch throughout Olympics weekends on what seemed like an hourly basis.
2015 was a banner year in Providence with an incredible team. We were as organized as we have ever been, and a number of records were broken. I was honored to address the gathering at Opening Ceremonies. This marked the fifth time we hosted the AYF Olympics since I have been involved.
I would be remiss if I left out the announcers sitting up there in the hot booth overlooking the field, notifying athletes where they need to be and when so they don’t miss an event. Michael Najarian and Mark Alashaian and others did their job like everyone else. I can still hear them all to this day.
The Governing Body is a triumvirate of people with one goal in mind: to ensure the games go on and are done the right way. My first meeting in 1982 at the Marriott Hotel in Providence included Ken Topalian (coach), Aram “Sonny” Gavoor, Dave Papazian from Whitinsville and Avedis “Avo” Alashaian. Later on, Mark Alashaian, Michael Hagopian, Ken Topalian, Mike Varadian, Dave Papazian (Phil.), Al Sarafian and Ara Krafian would carry the torch for about six years playing an extra active role when the games were in their region.
Close friends Steve Mesrobian, Paulie Haroian and Mark Norigian are also part of this journey. They all went from member athletes and former chairmen of the chapter to lieutenants. I recall in 1994 when we were working on assembling two softball teams. Paulie approached me as the weekend was nearing and asked which team I was putting him on. I told him it was a tough decision, but that the new kid, Steve Markarian, had beaten him out. Paulie disagreed, but accepted my decision. In fact, he asked if he could tell Steve the news himself. Paulie asked to be on the first team just in case he was needed, and his request was granted. I truly believe that if you place the team first, no matter the results, everything will work out fine.
Steve Mesrobian has served every possible position from AYF junior president to the ARF Central Committee. At Olympics, he works with coaches at the organizational level. He has an endless amount of energy, and I’m proud to call him one of my best friends. He is also a facilitator and digs deep when needed.
Mark Norigian joined the team to play softball in Watertown back in the 80s and later served as the chapter president for four years. He too had the leadership ability to undertake any task to completion.
Bob Tutunjian has left his mark on our city. His three kids and nephew joined our chapter, but notable is the endless work and effort this dedicated and committed man puts into his craft.
Aram “Sonny” Gavoor of Detroit comes to mind. Our teams went at it year after year. He and I would usually meet on Thursday night of Olympics weekend and share our strengths and weaknesses. There was no need to stretch the truth; in a few short days the real story would come out. We had an incredible amount of respect and admiration for each other. He was a committed and dedicated man, and I miss him dearly.
I also miss my friend Tom Vartabedian, a William Saroyan disciple who would pour his heart and soul into every story he wrote. He had a genuine passion for his job; covering the AYF Olympics was where he excelled. When the weekend was over, he would go to his summer home by the lake and start putting the pictures with the words as only he could. He was a master of his art. He often said the greatest race he ever saw was the Armenian race.
These games have come a long way in the last 40 years. There was a time when we needed every kid’s room number so we could call to wake them up or knock on their doors to get them ready for the ride to the venue. Then cell phones came along with texting. Now there are alerts on the phone. What’s next?
I’ll leave you with this. Always do your best to be the best you can be. Wasted talent is just that and that applies to more than the AYF Olympics. I look forward to the day when I return as a coach for the Providence Varantians. My only hope is that I’m worthy of those who came before me, the women and men of the Providence community—a community in the smallest state that has seen more than its share of leaders on and off the fields with a legacy that’s second to none.
When someone like Coach Haig (Juny) Markarian Jr. approaches you and asks you to join this great organization, whether you are on your high school or college team or not, don’t let that opportunity slip through your hands. You will make friends for life all over the country. You will have memories that will last a lifetime. You may even find your soulmate. Most of all, you will keep this tradition going for generations, so if by chance some kid bumps into a friend who introduces him to his coach…