Olympic gold medalist puts health before glory

Eduard Azarian accompanied his father to the gym before he could walk, entranced by the tumbling, vaulting and mid-air maneuvers on the rings.

He followed in Albert Azarian's footsteps and became an Olympic gymnastics champion, representing the Soviet Union in the era before their Armenian homeland gained its independence.

Eduard Azarian knows it takes enormous dedication to win a gold medal. As a coach and gym owner, he prepares athletes to give top-notch performances every day.

But if no representative of the Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center in Aliso Viejo ever stands atop an Olympic podium, that's fine with him.

Azarian's goal is to make gymnastics the foundation of a healthy life for 18-month-olds, 50-year-olds and everyone in between. He's fighting the tide of obesity that has engulfed his adopted country by persuading kids to incorporate exercise into their daily routine and inspiring adults to get off the couch and get moving.

"It's not only an Olympic gym. This is for everybody, for all kinds of kids, to make them happy and healthy and find a place in this life," Azarian said.

"They don't need an Olympic title. They need to be healthy. I'm paying a lot of attention to have kids come into this gym and whether talented or not, they need physical activity, and gymnastics is a good thing to do."

Eduard, 47, played soccer as a child, but he knew where his future lay. "You could say that I had no choice," he said, smiling.

His father, Albert, had won four world titles as well as three gold medals and a silver medal at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. Two moves on the rings were named for Albert -- the Azarian (or Olympic) cross, and the Azarian roll. Now 78, Albert carried the Armenian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Eduard became a Soviet junior national champion in his early teens. He won a silver medal in the team competition at the 1978 world championships and a silver medal on the rings at the 1979 world cup meet before being chosen for the 1980 Olympic team in Moscow and sharing an easy victory over East Germany. That year, in the world cup, he won the parallel bars title and finished second in the all-around.

He became a coach to support himself, his wife, Marina, and their two children. A visit to a friend who worked in a gym in Redlands gave him the idea of coming to the United States for a while, and he got an offer to work at a YMCA.

"First I say no, because both kids were in Armenia," he said. "Second, it was a question of how they would pay me, because I had no work permit."

Promised a contract and a job here, the Azarians returned home to pack, only to learn that immigration issues stood in their way. But in 1989, with the Soviet Union dissolving and conditions deteriorating, they were compelled to move.

"No exaggeration, we had electricity for one hour a day for two years," Marina Azarian said. "And within that hour you had to heat up the water to wash the dishes, to take a shower, to pour the water on the kids. It was horrible.

"And we had no gas. Our joy was that one hour daily. And it was just freezing during winter. We would wear turtlenecks and go to bed."

Eduard said the couple decided to return to the U.S. so he could work for two years, "until everything gets normalized back in Armenia. Then we will just go back."

That was in 1992.

He found work in Van Nuys with a gym owner who had known his father, but his money went to a lawyer who got the family visas and green cards. Eduard, Marina, 10-year-old Albert and 7-year-old Albina lived with a friend in Pasadena while Eduard learned English and built a clientele.

His success got him an offer from a gym in Fountain Valley. While he worked there, the family members became U.S. citizens in 2002. That spurred him to act on his long-held dream of being his own boss.

"In doing this all these years I saw so many unfair things. About teaching, about how to make kids become better gymnasts," he said. "I always had that pressure there, that somebody was telling me what to do and how to do it.

"And that was bothering me, too, to produce better gymnasts and make kids not to be bitter as a human being.... I saw mistakes that were made, saw success from people and learned from them. I had experience on my shoulder to help me understand what I wanted and how I could do it to make things better for kids and the community."

He bought the Aliso Viejo gym 14 months ago from Tim Klempnauer, a former Cal State Fullerton gymnast who became a coach and judge. Marina oversees business operations and Albina is the office manager and teaches pre-school classes. The Azarians' son, an aspiring writer, isn't involved with the gym.

The Azarians kept nearly all of the students who had previously studied there and have a substantial number of boys in classes. Three boys from the gym were named to USA Gymnastics' National Development team: Kevin Wolting in the 12-year-old level, Marty Strech at the 10-year-old level and Joey Ringer at the 8-to-9-year-old level. Another gymnast, Donathan Bailey, was the 2006 junior Olympic pommel horse champion.

Not every child will match that, but many thrive on teams or in classes.

"My son likes the challenge of learning new things and takes pride in his accomplishments. He'd live here if we'd let him," said David Dean, whose 10-year-old son Christopher competes on a team.

"Eduard works with each child. It's about helping each child do their very best within what they're capable of doing."

Karen Davis of Aliso Viejo has brought her 5-year-old daughter Brennan to the gym since she was 3. "She really enjoys it. We're not thinking about the Olympics. We're thinking that maybe she'll stay in it until next June," Davis said.

"Part of it is the fun and exercise. And we want to improve her academics and focus, and I'd heard gymnastics was really good for that."

Azarian, she said, "has a great presence. I think everyone kind of looks at him as, 'Wow!' "

His feats are common knowledge, though he no longer has the gold medal as evidence. His medal and his father's were stolen from the Armenian museum where they had been on display, and the International Olympic Committee doesn't issue duplicates. "I have a diploma to prove I am an Olympic champion," he said, smiling.

And a healthy legacy.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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