Twenty years after becoming the first athlete to compete for Armenia, the Olympic flame continues to burn brightly for Joe Almasian.
It’s never been extinguished, ever since he and Kenny Topalian represented the Independent Republic of Armenia in a rented bobsled while funding their own expenses.
The fact they finished well out of the running made no difference. Millions of Armenians throughout the world watched them parade into Lillehammer led by the Armenian tricolor. The patriotism alone was worth a gold medal.
“An experience like that never leaves you,” said Almasian. “You live that dream all your life.”
The year was 1994. Armenia was struggling as an independent republic for three years and needed a lift.
The country was still in recovery from a devastating earthquake in 1988 that took 25,000 lives and left another 300,000 homeless. Poverty and depression were rampant.
The two became instant household names. Arman Serebrakian, an alpine skier for Armenia at the Sochi games, lists Almasian and Topalian as his two role models for “breaking the ice” as Armenia’s first Olympians.
“They’re my heroes,” he said during an interview with the Armenian Weekly.
These days, Almasian is making his share of speaking engagements, rekindling the past. He’s been the subject of a full-page spread in the Lowell Sun and has accepted invitations to speak at schools. It’s been somewhat of a celebrity status for the ageless athlete, who continues playing competitive soccer and serving his Armenian church and community with unbridled devotion.
During a speaking engagement at St. Gregory Church, Rev. Stephan Baljian recalled the time his dad, Rev. Archpriest Antranig Baljian, took him to Connecticut for a surprise encounter with Almasian.
“I was only 14 at the time,” he said. “Here’s my father dragging me to Hartford to hear some speaker. I balked but went anyway. It turned out to be Joe Almasian talking about his Olympic experiences and I was never more entranced in all my life. Now I’m his pastor. It’s a sense of pride and admiration that has transpired to this very day.”
Since joining the church with his wife Kim and three children, Almasian has played an active role. He’s a trustee; co-chairman of the Building Committee, which has raised $1.5 million for the renovation project; and is part of the maintenance crew.
He helps keep the church mobile and functioning while Kim sings in the choir, and offspring Armen, Meline, and Tamar regularly attend Sunday School.
There’s a tinge of humor in his delivery.
“People always ask me how we finished and I tell them there were no gold medals, but we were national champs,” he smiles.
“I was able to fulfill the obligation of promoting my homeland,” added the one-time Camp Haiastan attendee and Framingham/Providence AYFer.
Like his mom Lucy (Oulohojian), Almasian is among the top Olympic scorers in AYF history, did soccer and track at the University of New Hampshire, and is an Eagle Scout.
“Being of Armenian heritage, it’s always nice to see your country represented,” he said. “I’d like to think we paved some of that road and gave inspiration to others.”