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Armenians Prepare for Olympics

January 13, 2002

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ Kenneth Touchi rounds the corner and hears that familiar rumbling. His dog breaks free, racing after a 400-pound bobsled skidding down Welch Avenue on this balmy January afternoon.

Touchi and the barking Cyman have stumbled across the Armenian bobsled team, whose road to the Olympics cuts through this sleepy, middle-class San Jose neighborhood.

``They’re crazy. We don’t have any snow here,″ Touchi says. ``But I hope they win. They’ll make our block look good.″

Dan Janjigian and Yorgo Alexandrou won’t be winning any medals at the Winter Games. But simply competing at the Salt Lake City Olympics will be triumph enough for these best buddies, whose latest training run has nearly claimed the front bumper of a parked car.

While the favored Swiss and German teams use custom-built sleds and train virtually year-round on ice-covered tracks, Janjigian and Alexandrou have a secondhand bobsled and do most of their workouts on Welch Avenue.

``We were joking yesterday that maybe we’ll bring the value of houses up in this area,″ Janjigian says. ``People will say they want to live on that bobsled street.″

Just as with many Olympians from smaller countries, practicing is one of many challenges facing Janjigian and Alexandrou.

They interrupt training to do fund-raisers, such as the $100-a-plate feast set for next week in a church hall. And there was a matter of citizenship _ Alexandrou is of Greek heritage.

Janjigian, 29, who supports the Armenian bobsled team with proceeds from his Web site design company, lost his original brakeman _ Ara Bezdjian _ to a back injury.

He went to Armenia and recruited a 19-year-old weightlifting champion, but his visa application was rejected after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So Janjigian turned to his best friend, Alexandrou, whose first run on a bobsled track nearly was his last.

Three weeks of Welch Avenue workouts had not prepared Alexandrou, 29, for the 90-mph speed on an icy mile-long track. Racers encounter five times the force of gravity, sucking the air out of their lungs.

``It was so fast I almost didn’t get into the sled. Then I was hyperventilating. I was in shock for two hours after the race,″ he says.

Alexandrou, an importer of Greek wine, soon became hooked _ and the Armenian bobsled federation granted him residency status.

But they still had to qualify for the Olympics.

Their last real chance came in mid-December in Lake Placid, N.Y., where Janjigian drove four hours to borrow a set of weights.

Janjigian and Alexandrou are thickly muscled, but their combined weight is only about 400 pounds _ trim by bobsledding standards. Racers are allowed to add weight to their sleds to make up the difference.

They qualified on the last run of the competition, finishing fifth _ ahead of such nations as Mexico, Trinidad and the Virgin Islands.

It was vindication for Janjigian, whose three-year quest had drained his bank account and tried his parents’ patience.

``My father is one of those dads who has always been skeptical. He is always like, `What is the point?′ He’s always wanted me to settle down,″ Janjigian says. ``Now he’s just so proud.″

Janjigian began his Olympic odyssey when he met Greek bobsledder John-Andrew Kambanis at a cousin’s wedding. Kambanis, always looking for new sledders, realized right away he had a good prospect.

``I knew he had a good athletic background. And when you start a team for a small country you have to have an entrepreneurial spirit, and I saw that in Dan,″ says Kampanis, a Chicago-based financial analyst.

Janjigian and Alexandrou won’t be the first Olympic bobsledders from Armenia, a mountainous country slightly larger than Maryland that until 1994 contributed athletes to Soviet Union teams.

Joe Almasian and Ken Topalian finished 36th at the Lillehammer Games, joining a roster of Armenian-American sports heroes that includes tennis’ Andre Agassi and former Miami Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian.

Almasian, who lives in Boston, competed in those 1994 Winter Games with a sled rented from the American Samoan team.

``Being of Armenian heritage, it’s always nice to see your country represented,″ he says. ``And I’d like to think we paved some of that road and have given some inspiration to Dan.″

Janjigian and Alexandrou lack the novelty of the Jamaican team that inspired the movie ``Cool Runnings,″ or the fame of sledders such as Monaco’s Prince Albert and former NFL star Herschel Walker.

But they’re quite an attraction on Welch Avenue.

They’ve welded in-line skates onto an old sled, and set up timers on the street. Drivers wave, children gawk and Janjigian’s 94-year-old grandmother sometimes visits to cheer on her beloved Armenian team.

The tanned sledders are practicing their start _ ``Set ... ready ... one ... ahhh-huuh″ _ as Touchi and Cyman pass by.

Touchi, 73, a retired mechanical engineer who grew up in Hawaii, recognizes one part of the sled from his childhood.

``We had wheels like that, too,″ he says. ``But they were on a skate.″


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