Physician assistant. Stepmom. Fiancée. Olympian.
When most people picture Olympic gymnasts, Houry Gebeshian isn’t who comes to mind. The 27-year-old Massachusetts native who competes for Armenia internationally forged her own path to Olympic glory, refusing to let the dream die.
A 2011 graduate of the University of Iowa, where she competed as one of the school’s top NCAA gymnasts earning a berth to nationals in her senior year, Houry didn’t realize the Olympics could be a possibility until she was at an age when most elite gymnasts retire. At 22, Houry got the opportunity to represent Armenia at the 2011 World Championships, a qualifying meet for the 2012 Games, but a heel injury limited her and she missed out on London by just one spot.
Houry retired, went to grad school, got a job, fell in love…a typical post-college journey. But somewhere deep down, Houry still felt the pull of her sport. She wanted to go to the Games, and so halfway between London and Rio, she made the decision to come back.
This time around, everything worked out. Houry finished 68th out of nearly 200 all-around competitors at worlds in 2015, easily securing a spot at the test event, the final qualifier for the Games held at the Olympic Arena in Rio. There, Houry was even better than she was at worlds, hitting all four events to reach the best elite finish of her career in addition to earning a spot at the Olympic Games.
Qualifying to the Games was the hard part, so with that over with, Houry came to Rio with the goal of having the time of her life, and she did just that. Performance-wise, she managed to top even her test event scores, earning a 53.848 to place 38th in a field and come just 1.4 points away from the all-around final. And even more importantly, Houry lived it up in Rio, taking advantage of everything the Games had to offer, making her last meet ever her very best.
We caught up with Houry this weekend as she prepared to walk in the closing ceremony tonight before returning home to Ohio, back to her job at the Cleveland Clinic and planning a wedding with her fiancé Duane. Check out her interview below to see the Olympic experience through her eyes.
Before we get into anything else, is it even possible to describe the feeling of what it’s like to compete at the Olympic Games?
I would say…when I got done competing at the Olympics, I had such an overwhelming mix of emotions. I was so excited to have accomplished my dream and I was happy. I was just excited to be here and I don’t know if you watched the stream, but I would look up and see the rings or the Rio 2016 logo everywhere and get a huge smile on my face because I felt a sense of accomplishment and excitement. I was really enjoying myself, and it was a great feeling. Now that it’s kind of over, I have that up and down feeling where I’m sad it’s over but really happy about my career. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride over the last couple of days.
You had some struggles actually getting to Rio. What happened there?
Oh, my God. It was a disaster. I started in Cleveland and I don’t know…I think my flight was coming in from New York and there were weather issues. A lot of people were having trouble with their flights and my first flight got delayed like three hours. I only had a minimal layover time so I didn’t know if I should get on the plane because I didn’t know if I’d make it to my next flight, but the flight attendants were like, don’t worry, we’ll get you there as quickly as possible.
When that flight landed, I had 15 minutes to get from one terminal to the other at the HUGE airport in Miami. I was meeting my coach there and I was like, tell them an Olympian is coming, they have to hold the plane, stand in the doorway, whatever you can, I’m not missing this flight! He called me and the flight attendants were like don’t worry, we’ll have transportation for you. I had to go from my terminal at C or D, out of security, back through security, and then to my gate in terminal H. It was such a long distance, and no transportation was there, so I was sprinting through the airport and yelling when I finally got to terminal H. I was like, “I’m going to Rio! Hold the plane!” They were NOT going to hold the plane. They said if I wasn’t there by 11:10, they were closing the doors and I wouldn’t be allowed on.
I got there, luckily. My legs were sore for the next three days because I ran. I’m not a runner. Good thing they had cold tubs here at the polyclinic because I sat in those tubs all day and night. Oh, and of course, my bags didn’t make it. I was like, great. Literally the only things in my carry-on were my grips and my leotards. I was all set with my leotards but I had nothing to wear. It was miserable. It ended up being fine, and the Rio staff told me they’d find my bags and bring them to me. I kept checking and they were like “we’re looking for them!” After three days, my family flew in and I was like, can you please go look for my bags? So they went to the office and found them. They had been waiting there the whole time. Good thing my family came to the rescue.
Anyway, everything worked out. It was annoying more than anything. For the majority of my first couple of days, instead of adventuring and looking around the village, I was stuck in the office trying to figure out the bag situation. But I was able to fully separate that drama from my competition mentality.
Houry in the tub at the polyclinic, which helped save her legs for the competition.
How did you enjoy going back to Rio? Since the test event came with the pressure of having to earn an Olympic spot, was this more of an enjoyable time or did you still feel pressure for the competition?
Everyone asked me if I was nervous or ready before I came here. But the hard part was done. The test event was really stressful. I was nervous for that. But once I qualified and earned my spot and was here, I was pretty relaxed and knew that I could just compete and enjoy myself and soak in every single moment. That was my plan. I was really just looking forward to being here.
What was it like walking in the opening ceremony? How did that inspire you for the competition a couple of days later?
It. Was. Phenomenal. We were waiting and waiting and waiting for hours to walk out. I was like WHEN are we going to walk out?! I was getting antsy. We kind of walked into a tunnel and I was like “it’s coming up!” and then this big gate opens up and you walk through and I could just hear all the cheering and all the noise and I like, got butterflies in my stomach. I don’t know if it was excitement or nerves or what, but I was like, “what’s gonna be on the opposite side of this gate?!” I finally walked out there, looked around, and all of those people were there to see us. To be a part of the Games. It was so overwhelming and such an honor to be there with my team and soak in the experience. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was so fortunate to be able to do it. It started the Games for me, it started riling me up and getting me pumped for my competition day.
Houry in the Armenian costume for the opening ceremony
You seemed to have a good bond going with the gymnasts in your rotation group during the competition. After being used to NCAA competition where you’re competing with a team, did you feel like it helped you to have these girls on your side?
Definitely. I mean, being an individual athlete, you always get stuck in those mixed groups and you never know who you’ll be stuck with. We were super supportive of each other. From NCAA you learn how to be a team and cheering makes it more fun and exciting and I personally like that support and knowing someone is watching and cheering me on and pushing me to do my best. In practice sessions when I met those girls, I asked if they liked cheering or if they liked it being their own thing, and every single one of them wanted to cheer and to have a team feeling. They were all like, we never get that, and it’s so refreshing to have that. I was happy about it, and so we cheered each other on and it really did feel like a college meet to me, at least a little bit. It wasn’t as loud or fun as college, but it was nice.
We’ve talked about your NCAA career in the past and how it’s helped you at the elite level. What was the number one thing you learned in college that helped you in Rio?
I mean, I think in college I actually learned how to compete. I learned how to handle pressure. You compete every single weekend and it counts every single weekend, every single time you’re up there. That was the biggest thing I took away when I transitioned over to the elite world. Reflecting back on it all, I actually prefer the elite world. I loved the team aspect, but I think I thrive athletically on my own, which is interesting. I love being part of a team and cheering people on but I hated the pressure of having to do my routine for the team. In college I learned how to hit my routines but now in the elite world I transferred that over and was able to enjoy it more because I hit those routines and they were for me. I earned it and the reward was for me. It helped me become a better athlete.
In general, you looked like you were having so much fun on the competition floor, and that spirit showed in your performances. In gymnastics you often see athletes looking tense and nervous but you were always having fun and even dancing before going up on vault. How much does that attitude help with how you perform?
I do my best when I’m like, calm, cool, collected, having a good time, and doing gymnastics because I love gymnastics. That’s exactly what I was doing at the Olympic Games. I knew this was going to be my last competition and I didn’t let that get to me but I knew I had to make the most of it and had to enjoy my time here. I knew I was gonna do my best if I just relaxed and had fun. By the time I got to vault I was maybe a little too relaxed, so that wasn’t the best I could possibly do there, but that’s okay. I still had a phenomenal meet. It helped me a lot to be having fun and enjoying my time. That was my plan. I would randomly look around and be like oh my gosh, I’m at the Olympic Games. How cool is that?
Houry with Russia’s Seda Tutkhalyan, a fellow gymnast of Armenian descent
Thinking back on your competition, what did you come out feeling like was your best event?
I haven’t been able to go back and watch any videos yet so based on my feelings only, I think my beam was the best beam routine I’ve ever done. I didn’t have any balance checks, no wobbles, no nothing. I took a tiny hop on my landing on my double back, but I can’t remember anything else going badly. I would say my beam really stands out in my mind.
When and how did you decide to kiss the apparatuses after you finished competing on each? What’s the story behind this?
No story. I was not planning on doing it at all. Absolutely not. It came about because I finished my bar routine, I stuck my landing, I hit my newly invented skill pretty well…it was the best routine I could do and once I stuck my landing, I was like, that was awesome. If I could’ve let out one of those hawk screams like the boys do, I totally would have. I was so excited and it was like my way of saying thank you and being like yes, I did it. This is awesome. I hugged the bars and gave them a kiss, and then I ran off the podium and was like, that was a good idea. This was my last time doing gymnastics, I love the sport, and I want to show the sport and everyone that I really appreciate everything this sport has given me. The way I thought to do that was to continue with giving a little hug and kiss to every apparatus. I didn’t know how to hug the floor without, like, doing a belly flop or something so I just kissed it. I almost forgot to kiss the vault so I had to run back when the next coach was already setting the board. If I got deducted for any of this, whatever!
Your all-around finish was the best in your elite career. How did it feel to have everything come together right when it should?
Great. I don’t know what else to say. It was the best meet of my life. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I did the best that I could, I enjoyed my time there, I got the best scores that I’ve ever gotten, and I worked really hard. My hard work paid off and showed. It was a wonderful feeling to know I’m leaving the sport at a high. What better way to have the best competition of your life at the Olympic Games?
On top of this, you also introduced a brand new bars mount that will bear your name in the code of points. When did you start working on it? What made you decide to go for something so risky when most just stick to more basic A-level mounts [Houry’s new skill, The Gebeshian, is a full-twisting hecht mount over the low bar rated as a D-level skill]?
I qualified for the Olympics and I was like, I gotta make the most out of this experience. At first, I thought I wanted to make it into a final, so I thought all-around or maybe vault could be realistic. I started training two vaults, but my DTY wasn’t coming along the way I’d hoped. It was okay, but I was running out of time and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it. I joked with my fiancé about how if I had the best meet of my life up to that point, maybe I should just throw it, since vault was my last event…but I didn’t want to break my legs, so I didn’t end up doing that.
When I knew the finals situation might not be a possibility, I decided to look for something else. I always wanted to invent a skill, so I looked through the code of points and tried to figure out what to do, which was really hard. Like, every skill is already invented! I was looking at bars mounts and saw the mount I did, and then one where you jump OVER the low bar with a full twist but not pushing OFF the low bar, so I thought maybe I could do the push off with the full twist.
I started off doing a push half, and finally started catching it about three months before the Olympics. I worked it for about a month and it was getting nowhere. I would catch and land in a dead hang and it was miserable. I was like, this sucks, what am I gonna do? I sent the video to my old coach and he was like, yeah, you’re wasting your time. Just do a full and get it over with. So I was like okay! Maybe I should do a full. The first couple I did, I landed like, half on my head and on my side like a weird turtle that flipped over, and was like this is awful. I only had two months left at that point so I had to do it, and I kept working. It became my number one priority. I was like, I have to have this invented. I started catching it and here we are. I have, like, battle wounds from smacking the bar a million times, but it’s fine.
You got some super cool Olympic sneakers and had them signed by tons of fellow Olympians. Can you pick a favorite moment or story while collecting these signatures?
At first I would wear them around but I didn’t want them to get ruined. I’d be like “can you sign my shoes?” and take my shoes off and be like “here you go!” They’re special edition Jordans, made specifically for Rio. My sister got them for me and was like it’d be really cool if you got them signed. Most people looked at me like I was crazy but everyone was really nice about it. On competition day, we were waiting for the bus and doing nothing, so I passed around my shoes. Giulia Steingruber signed them, Catalina Ponor signed them, the girls in my group signed them. The Russian team was just hanging out, so I was like, lemme go ask the Russians. They were fine about it, but their coach was like “AFTER the meet! AFTER the competition!” I was like okay, we’re just hanging out! But everyone else was pretty cool about it. Oh, also, I was on the bus and got Nile Wilson to sign them, and then Kohei Uchimura got on and I was like ooh, and passed them up to him and he looked at me and was like “Oh! Jordans!” He was like, really impressed with them. I was like, Kohei, I bet you could get a million pairs of Jordans if you really want them?!
Houry’s awesome Rio-edition Jordan 10’s, signed by fellow Olympians from all over the world
What about the Games in general? What is your favorite story from the village, on the competition floor, or outside of the village?
I tried to go to as many events as I possibly could fit in. On Friday night, I went to the men’s relay where they pass the baton, so that was really cool. I also went to the relay with Michael Phelps and everyone. The funniest story I have…I mean, there will probably be more, but with our credential you can take the bus and get to any arena and go in through the athlete’s entrance. Usually the athlete’s entrance will take you literally right into the arena. You’d think there would be a way to take you to the stands, but I went to track cycling and in the velodrome, you get off the bus and there’s this big ramp. You go up the ramp and you’re thinking maybe it’s taking you upstairs and you’re on the right track but realistically it’s taking you right into the middle of the velodrome. Right in the middle of everything that’s going on. You’re like, what am I doing here?! How did I end up here?! I didn’t act like I belonged and was taking videos on my phone of the cyclists zooming by my face and no one was saying anything either. Eventually I did get yelled at. Some guy was like “you shouldn’t really be here.”
Did you get to support some of your Armenian teammates in their sports?
Yes! I saw most of them compete, I would say. We had a good group. We had weightlifters, wrestlers, track athletes, swimmers, gymnasts…and I went to most of their competitions, and it was great to get to know these athletes personally. There was a little bit of a language barrier but they were very welcoming for the most part. We had medalists in wrestling and weightlifting, which was huge for Armenia. It was a really great team atmosphere.
What’s next for you beyond this stage in your life? I know you have a lot going on with work and planning a wedding, but is there any way you’ll be able to stay involved with gymnastics?
I definitely want to stay involved. Especially with the Armenian federation. My whole goal with promoting myself and my journey was to get more publicity and more support to build an Armenian women’s gymnastics team. I really wanted to help get the resources needed to do that, so I’m hoping to be a mentor or coordinator for the future of an Armenian women’s program. It was interesting because I got done competing and the federation’s official people were like, “wow, we didn’t know you were a great competitor, you did a great job representing Armenia!” Before that I was getting so much negativity from them so hopefully that helps me stay involved.
Also, the gym I train at right now [Gymnastics World in the Cleveland area], I’ve been promising them for two years that I’m going to give back or coach or something to help the program there because they’ve given me so much and I love the sport. The least I can do is coach. Maybe I’ll jump in and do something with strength and conditioning, which I love. I also told my fiancé that we’re gonna be total gym nerds and I was like, we’re totally gonna travel across the world and go to a whole bunch of competitions because that’s what I want to do. I really want to go to worlds in Montreal next year.
Thank you Houry for sharing your experience with us! We wish you the best of luck in your future.
Article by Lauren Hopkins