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Richie Arakelian: Weightlifter Who Left Armenia to Set World Records

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KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"
Today, we hear from world record holding powerlifter, Richie Arakelian:


"My real name is Hrattchia, but everyone calls me Richie.

"I was born June 16, 1969, in Yerevan, Armenia. I came from a regular family. My mom was a doctor and my dad was an engineer.

"When I was seven-years-old, I watched on television this Armenian weightlifter, Yuri Vartanyan, break the world record. I was a little kid and I liked how he would scream and ding the bell and take the weights off.

"I knew immediately I wanted to be a professional weightlifter. I got a piece of wood and I started to simulate training, but in my country - Armenia was then part of the Soviet Union - they did not let anybody train unless his parents signed all the required paperwork.

"My parents wouldn't even let me go to the gym. One day I found a way to get over there and the trainer gave me a packet full of documents. Every day I asked my parents to sign the papers. Finally, they signed and that same day I started lifting.

"I haven't stopped since. On January 7th, I squatted 5,175 pounds in one minute - that is twenty-three reps of 225 pounds - and set a world record for the fourth time. The first three time each got Guinness World Records and by the time you're reading this, I expect to have received the certificate confirming this fourth time as well. (Watch the YouTube video of the record-setting performance.)

"Today, I'm an American citizen and I live with my wife, Ripsime, and our son, Hacop*, and my mom in a house in Northridge.

"I told you I started training at age seven. By the time I was eleven-years-old, I was on the Armenian national team. By the time I was fourteen, I was on the Soviet national team and going to international competitions.

"I was in high school, but I didn't have the time to go, I was always training. The team would take me from home to train in different locations for a month or two before big competitions. One of the biggest competitions for me was in 1988 in Leipzig, Germany, where I set a European record for juniors.

"I then went to serve in the Soviet Army, in Special Forces. When the authorities found out that I was a weightlifter they moved me from the Army to the Sport Institute

"Then one day, the head of the Soviet team came to my house with his helper. They asked my dad for 70,000 rubles to take me to the world championships.

"My dad got really upset. He came from Bulgaria, he grew up there, but he was Armenian. He said to me, 'You know what? You are going to leave this country because everything is about money and I don't want that for you.'

"He saved money to buy he, my mom and me plane tickets to America. But then the ruble was switched to a new Armenian currency and 100 rubles went down to approximately ten cents, it was worth nothing. We couldn't leave. My aunt lived in Boston and my dad asked her for the money for just one ticket, for me.

"My dad got me my visa and travel passport through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and on March 4, 1991 I came to the United States.

"I flew to New York and then I went to Boston. I lived for the next three months with my aunt. I couldn't speak English at all, nothing. I only had $20 in my pocket. I didn't have a car, only a bicycle - in the wintertime, Boston was very tough. Every day I would ride for one hour and twenty minutes through the snow to get to work at a dry cleaner.

"It took me a month of work to pay off my aunt. I didn't want to owe anybody.


"Two months later, still in Boston, I rented a house with some roommates.

"I went over to visit my aunt. One time, she was watching a wedding video sent to her by friends in Los Angeles - Glendale, actually - and I watched it too. This is how I met my wife.

"Her name is Ripsime and I saw her in the wedding video - it wasn't her wedding!

"I liked her and I asked my aunt how I could contact this woman? My aunt got me her phone number, through my other aunt who lives in Glendale. So I called Ripsime and for three months, we spoke by phone every day.

"Then, on her birthday, I flew here to surprise her.

"Well, guess who was the surprised one? I took the American Airlines flight roundtrip from Logan Airport to LAX and my aunt who lived in Glendale was supposed to come meet me at the airport. She brought Ripsime with her! I was kind of shell-shocked because I had only seen her in the video, never physically. It was good.

"We had seven days together. The first place we went to was the Santa Monica Pier. Before I left, we came back again in the evening to walk and I asked her to marry me.

"So we got engaged and I went back to Boston again. Then on my birthday in June, she came to Boston and we decided that we would come back over here to live and I moved to L.A. and we got married in 1998.

"Everything was fine. We rented a one-bedroom apartment in Glendale. Unlike Boston, 99% of the people there speak Armenian. It was tough because it is a totally different place to live and to work than Boston. It was not as easy but again I found a job. In 2003, we had our son, Hakop. He is now 8-years-old.

"At the same time, my dad passed away back in Armenia, leaving my mom by herself.

"I went back for the passing and to be helpful to my mom. When I came back over we got a visa for her and she came in December 2003. My son was six months old at that time and it was a really big help for us because we couldn't afford a babysitter. My wife works in LAUSD and at the time, I was driving a big truck transporting oil to gas stations. We bought a town house in Northridge so we could all be a little more comfortable.

"Right before September 11th, I had been accepted to be a flight attendant, but the airline industry struggled and there weren't jobs.

"I work now as a security officer and bodyguard. I've done this over the years in all different kinds of places. One of them is the Barnes and Noble on the Santa Monica Promenade. They know me pretty well there. I helped make a big arrest.

"I was on the third floor and I jumped all the way to the first floor, through the escalators, to catch the guy and not let him out. It took me a few seconds to get the guy and cuff him. The police came and they were amazed and asked how did I do all that? I said, 'I have been trained.'


"When I came, it was a lot easier to arrive in the U.S. as a tourist and then get a social security number and work authorization card. I went to Immigration and applied and within thirty days everything was completed. For ten years I worked and paid my taxes. My wife is a U.S. citizen and three years after I got married I received a green card. A couple of years later, I applied for and received U.S. citizenship.

"Around this same time, I applied to USA Powerlifting to go to competitions. I was always meaning to break world records, to be a champion one more time. But they said I had to be a U.S. citizen to be in USA Powerlifting.

"So I went on the Internet and researched world records. I could still set some records even if I was unaffiliated with any organization or team. I found the Guinness world record for weight lifting. I stayed up until three in the morning and called Guinness' offices in London.

"The man I spoke with said they didn't need power weight lifting records, but he said that the squat weight lifting record for was 12,000 pounds in one hour. I said, 'Okay, I am going
to break it.'

"On December 16, 2006 I earned my first Guinness world record - I squat lifted 27,450 pounds.

"I set the record at a martial art studio in Glendale run by my ex-karate trainer - I'm a black belt - back in Armenia. Guinness required three judges witness the feat - a police officer, a doctor and a licensed judge or professional sportsman. The judges wrote down what I did, stamped it and sent that and a video off to London. Thirty days passed and soon I received my certificate.

"After that record, I said, 'This is easy.' I got started training and in 2007, somebody in Germany, I believe, passed my record and did 45 or 46,000 pounds. I started training harder.

"On Father's Day, June 15,, 2008, again in the Glendale, I did 95,600 pounds. I passed the world record by approximately 50,000 pounds.

"That one-hour mark belongs now to someone in, I think, Canada. So I switched to setting the world record for the most weight in one minute.

"On January 7th, at a gym in Reseda, I did it. That's when I squatted 5,175 pounds in one minute. That is twenty-three reps of 225 pounds. One ton is equal to 2,000 pounds, if that helps explain the weight.

"I went back to the gym the very next day. Now that I've held the one-minute and the one-hour records, I'm training for the three-minute and the 24-hour records.

"By the end of this year, I hope and plan to have set those two new world records - the sixth and seventh time I will have done so."

-- Richie Arakelian
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)​

Top Photo: Richie Arakelian, setting a world record, in January 2012. Photo by Andrew Freund

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