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WRESTLING WITH RED TAPE : Ara Parseghian's Cousin Hopes to Be First Armenian to Win a Gold Medal for U.S.

July 04, 1987|RANDY HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

Even though Barseghian had not wrestled in a major competition since 1984, he finished fourth last May at the U.S. Open championships in Albany, N.Y.

Strobel called Barseghian's performance in Albany "respectable," but said he was even better a month later at an international competition in Concord, Calif.

"He didn't place in the top six, but he beat some decent people," Strobel said. "One of his problems is he took a few years off. To come back in any sport, particularly one as physically demanding as wrestling, is tough. Concord was a better gauge of what he could do if he was in shape."

Barseghian since has been at the U.S. training camp in Albany, N.Y. Strobel said he received a call this week from one of the coaches, Joe Demeo, who told him Barseghian has looked better than any of the other wrestlers at 136 1/2 pounds.

Another of Barseghian's supporters is the U.S. Olympic coach, Pavel Katsen, a former wrestler and coach for the Soviet national team who immigrated to the United States.

When Barseghian arrived in the United States, he spoke Armenian and Russian but only a few words of English. Katsen, whose native language is Russian, immediately adopted him as a protege.

But communication was a barrier for Barseghian in other areas.

"When I met him, his wife did most of the talking," Parseghian said. "I came to realize that he understood what was being said, but he had to grope for words. He has a degree in physical education and sports information. I told him I could help him get a job at the university level, but he had to learn the language."

Barseghian has done reasonably well. When an interview was arranged with a reporter, the editor of The California Courier, Harut Sassounian, volunteered to interpret. But Barseghian was able to answer most of the questions in English, only occasionally needing Sassounian's assistance.

Nevertheless, Barseghian remains unemployed because of a rigorous training schedule that requires him to work out 6 1/2 hours a day, seven days a week.

Now separated from his wife, he lives in an upstairs apartment in a relative's house in Montrose and needs little money to subsist. But he was stunned to learn he would also have to pay all of his own training expenses, including travel to and from competitions.

"In the Soviet Union, I didn't have to worry about anything," he said. "The Soviet Union took care of everything for me. I didn't have to worry about a job, money or training. Here, I find out that if you are a world-class athlete, you are on your own. So if you can't find a club to sponsor you, or if you don't have money on your own, it doesn't matter how great you are."

It's not as if he weren't warned.

"When I asked to leave the Soviet Union, the officials said, 'Why are you going?' They said the Soviet Union was good for amateur sportsmen. They said, 'If you're going to the United States, it will be hard for you. Only professionals have a good situation there.' "

When Barseghian saw the Soviet officials last month in Concord, he told them they were right.

They invited him to join his former teammates in the Soviet team picture.

"They were trying to get him back," Sassounian said.

Barseghian rejected the invitation.

"Yes, I am somewhat disappointed in how amateur athletes are treated," he said. "But I enjoy life here. So that makes up for all other deficiencies."

Barseghian's transition from a state-supported amateur in the Soviet Union to a non-supported amateur in the United States might have been even more difficult for him because of his personality.

"I'm editor of a newspaper," Sassounian said. "I get to know things in the community quite fast. But it took me a year to hear that there's an athlete of his class in the community.

"He's really rare for an Armenian. Most Armenians, and I am one of them, are not shy about expressing themselves. But he's a very shy guy, a very humble guy. He doesn't brag.

"On one hand, he feels very nationalistic, proud of his ethnic background. On the other hand, he felt sad because no one was coming forward to help him out. I told him the reason no one was coming forward was because no one knew he existed, starting with myself.

"It just so happened that when I met him, he started competing here. I wrote one legitimate news article about a championship he won. Since then, my phone has not stopped ringing."

Sassounian said the executive board of the Armenian General Athletic Union and Boy Scouts, an international organization with headquarters in Glendale, has decided to sponsor Barseghian. The group arranged for him to return from Albany for the opening ceremony Sunday at Glendale High School of the 12th Navasartian Games, a multi-sport competition involving Armenian athletes from several U.S. cities and Argentina.

"The community is so proud of him they're going to try to raise funds to cover his expenses," Sassounian said. "He has all the qualifications of an Olympic champion except for plane tickets."

There also is the matter of a berth on the U.S. team.

Asked if the Soviets would object to Barseghian competing against them, Strobel said they might even enjoy it.

"I don't think they would stand in his way, especially in Greco-Roman, where they are so much better than anyone else," he said. "They would win the team championship even if they gave away 4 of their 10 guys. I think they would welcome him. They like the competition."

A more crucial question is whether Barseghian can obtain his citizenship before the Seoul Games.

"If the President declared him a U.S. citizen, I'm sure he would be able to compete for the U.S. team," Strobel said. "Is the Gipper still a Notre Dame fan?"

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