Former Hawkeye gymnast has amazing Olympic odyssey

Mark Emmert

So many remarkable sports stories include a moment of near-surrender.

For Houry Gebeshian, that came on July 27, 2012. It was the day she turned 23, bitterly trying to ignore the Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics.

“This would have been the best birthday present ever,” Gebeshian thought, her dreams of competing in gymnastics at the Summer Games just beyond her grasp when she came up three spots short of qualifying.

“I couldn’t watch it,” said Gebeshian, who had graduated in 2011 from the University of Iowa and moved on to Wake Forest to prepare for a career as a physician’s assistant. “I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to be sitting here studying for a stupid exam.’ I thought I was done with gymnastics. I thought life was unfair. I hated the world. I went into this depression.”

The 2016 Summer Games begin Aug. 5 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Gebeshian will be there, marching in the Opening Ceremony behind the Armenian flag with 21 other athletes, most of them strangers.

How she got to this point is a love story — the love of an Old World heritage she had drifted from, the love of a man she plans to marry who provided the right pep talk at the right time and, mostly, the love of a sport that Gebeshian has been drawn to since age 5.

Coming to Iowa

Gebeshian was born in Massachusetts, the first-generation daughter of parents who grew up in Lebanon but were displaced by civil war. Her grandparents hailed from Armenia, now a nation of 3 million people with a bloody and tragic past of its own. Armenian was the first language of her childhood.

“We were a pretty Armenian household, the culture, the food, the language,” Gebeshian said. “I kind of lost it along the way.”

At age 5, she took up gymnastics and eventually became good enough to attract the attention of college coaches. One was Larissa Libby at Iowa, who has a vivid memory of Gebeshian’s recruiting visit. Gebeshian met with a group of Hawkeye gymnasts, who brought a concern to Libby.

Houry Gebeshian at the University of Iowa, where she qualified for the NCAA championships in the all-around in 2011.

“The girls were like, ‘I don’t think she thinks we’re good,’” Libby recalled with a hearty laugh. “I said, ‘Guys, I think that’s great. Then we’ve got to get better if we’re not that good.’ She (Gebeshian) was looking to be the best. She didn’t want to settle. She’s always been that kid. There’s nobody that outworks that kid, which is obvious now.”

At Iowa, Gebeshian was the Big Ten Conference champion on the balance beam in 2010 and advanced to the NCAA championships in the all-around in 2011.

It was in 2010 that she succumbed to her parents’ insistence that she should try to compete in the Olympics. Gebeshian didn’t think she was good enough, certainly not for the loaded American squad that ended up winning gold in London. But her parents contacted a friend who was the liaison for the Armenian Olympic Committee. Armenia had never had a female gymnast qualify for the Olympics, although it has a strong men’s program. Its Olympic Federation was intrigued enough to take a chance on the foreigner.

Gebeshian made her first two trips to her ancestral homeland to “meet people and shake hands.” She gained dual citizenship. Her Olympic quest was on track.

Goodbye, then hello, to gymnastics

Gebeshian started training in earnest after her college career ended, transitioning to the more demanding routines — and hours in the gym — required in international competition. In retrospect, she thinks she overdid it, putting more strain on her body than it was prepared to handle. She developed a stress fracture in her heel just before the world championships in Tokyo in October 2011.

“We watered down everything, so it wasn’t my best day,” Gebeshian said of her four routines.

She finished 128th, not quite good enough to make the Olympic field.

Houry Gebeshian, a former Hawkeye gymnast, assists a patient during her job as a physician's assistant at the Cleveland Clinic. She works a 24-hour shift on Sundays and a 16-hour shift on Wednesdays to free up her daytime hours for gymnastics training.

And that was, she thought, her farewell to her sport. Gebeshian turned to her backup plan and enrolled in graduate school, a medical career awaiting, but a feeling of loss weighed her down.

In the summer of 2013, Gebeshian was assigned to a clinical rotation in Cleveland. There, she met a resident physician named Duane Ehredt Jr. He listened to her story and told her he could relate. Ehredt had been a star running back at Juniata College, a Division III school in Pennsylvania. He tore his ACL in his senior year, ending his career before he could become that school’s all-time leading rusher let alone contemplate any pro aspirations.

“I said, ‘Look, we just met each other, but this will haunt you for the rest of your life. If you legitimately have a chance to do it again, you should do it,’” Ehredt told Gebeshian.

The message stuck. So did their relationship.

“I don’t know if I really believe in love at first sight,” Ehredt said. “When you look back at the story of how she came to Cleveland, it feels like there was a plan in place. I was in love with her the first time I saw her.”

They plan to marry in the fall of 2017.

Gebeshian couldn’t get back into the gym until she finished her studies in 2014. Ehredt convinced her to come to Cleveland for her training. His mentor in the medical world was Mike Canales, a former gymnast at Ohio State. Canales is married to Dominique Moceanu, an Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. in 1996. Moceanu was able to steer Gebeshian to a local gym where her son also trains. The owners allow Gebeshian to train for free. You can see why Ehredt thinks there might be some divine guidance at work.

Gebeshian got a job at the Cleveland Clinic. She assists in the operating room, primarily on C-sections. Her work week consists of a 24-hour shift on Sundays and a 16-hour shift on Wednesdays. After a three-hour nap, she’s back in the gym by noon on Thursdays, putting in the six-day weeks necessary to get into Olympic shape.

Not that it was easy.

“I was 20 pounds overweight. It was miserable those first couple of months. I came home every day and questioned to Duane, 'Why am I doing this?'” Gebeshian said. “I felt like such an idiot because I was telling people that I was training for the Olympics, and here I can’t even do a basic back handspring. People must have thought I was the biggest joke. They saw me starting from nothing.”

Gebeshian had no coach, unheard of for top international competitors. Instead, she wrote out a year-long plan for herself.

“If it’s written down, I’ll follow it. I like to cross things off my list,” she said.

An Olympian at last

In April 2015, Gebeshian paid her way to France for the European championships and placed 19th. In October, it was time for the world championships in Scotland. Gebeshian got off to a poor start, falling off the balance beam at the outset, but recovered to finish 68th out of 192 gymnasts in all-around qualifying. That brought her to the Olympic test event in April at the Rio Olympic Arena, where Gebeshian’s 30th-place showing was enough to get her comfortably into the Games at last.

She will be Armenia’s lone female gymnast. By the Olympics, she will be 27, eight years older than the average gymnast she’ll compete against. But she’ll be there.

Ehredt plans to fly in to see Gebeshian compete. Her father, stepmother and an uncle already have their tickets. She’s hoping her mother and sister can also make it.

Houry Gebeshian, second from left, carries the Armenian flag into an international gymnastics competition. The University of Iowa graduate will be the first female gymnast to represent that country in an Olympic Games.

There will be thousands of Armenians rooting for her as well, in that country and also in Cleveland, where Gebeshian and Ehredt have become immersed in that culture. Ehredt was even baptized into the Armenian Apostolic Church and is learning to speak the language.

“I’m ABC: Armenian by choice,” he joked.

Gebeshian is accepting donations to defray her expenses, which range from $600 leotards to $1,500 for international flights. The local Armenian community has been a generous supporter, Ehredt said.

Gebeshian has been thrilled to re-embrace her Armenian roots and knows it will have special meaning to many in her family when she marches under that flag. She is hoping that her Olympic presence can be a springboard for an actual women’s gymnastics program in Armenia.

The Armenian Olympic Committee asked her to fly over to get measured for the matching uniforms the athletes will wear at the Opening Ceremony. That wasn’t practical, so Gebeshian sent them her measurements instead. She’s going to bring some bobby pins just in case some last-second alterations are needed.

Gebeshian said she’s in the best shape of her life, although a medal seems beyond reach. Still, she’s excited to perform a new skill she’s developed for her floor routine. She is keeping details under wraps but holds out hope that it might be named after her. Either way, her gymnastics legacy is secure as the first Armenian Olympian.

There will also be a smaller contingent of Iowans cheering on Gebeshian, led by her onetime coach, Libby. Libby represented Canada in the 1988 Olympics. Gebeshian will be her first former athlete to share that honor.

“It will be a mind-blowing, overwhelming experience. I had very little part in that journey, but any part is amazing,” Libby said.

“She’s breaking barriers in so many ways, age-wise," Libby said. "She’s working at night, training during the day. When does she sleep? For all of those people who think it’s not possible, it is possible, and she’s always believed that. I think it will bring a little tear to my eyes seeing her walk out there.”