Norik Vardanian’s weightlifting career began because he wanted to dunk a basketball.
He asked the man he considers “the Michael Jordan of weightlifting” for help. That’s his father Urik, who won an Olympic weightlifting gold medal in 1980 for the Soviet Union in the 82.5 kg. class.
Urik set five of his 43 career world records at the Moscow Games and his 400 kg. total would have won the next two higher weight classes as well, but Norik was just as impressed by the video of his father’s celebration.
“He ran and jumped over the chalk box, and the chalk box is a little above his stomach area,” Vardanian recalled.
When he told his father he wanted to improve his own vertical jump, Urik offered to show him some exercises. “The next thing I know, he got me weightlifting shoes, he made a platform in our garage and it was awesome,” said Vardanian, who had moved from his native Armenia to Moorpark, California, when he was 5 years old.
A power forward mainly because of his jumping ability and strength due to weightlifting, Vardanian realized his freshman year of high school, “How tall am I really going to be? How far can I really get in basketball?”
“So I decided to make the switch,” Vardanian said. “My father always told me, ‘I wouldn’t waste my time or your time if I knew you weren’t going to be something special in the sport.’ That always stuck with me.”
Vardanian, who will turn 29 on May 15, represented Armenia at the London 2012 Olympic Games, placing 11th.
Now he hopes to compete in Rio later this summer for the United States, his adopted country and the one in which he’s lived most of his life.
The first step for Vardanian is Thursday through Sunday in the USA Weightlifting National Championships & U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Weightlifting in Salt Lake City. He is the American record holder at 94 kg. in snatch (171 kg.) and total (373 kg.).
But performing well at Trials, where his competitors include Kendrick Farris, the American record holder in clean and jerk and a two-time U.S. Olympian at 85 kg., is not enough.
Team USA can only earn one Olympic spot for men and Vardanian will have to perform the best among all the U.S. lifters at the Pan American Championships in June in Colombia.
His girlfriend, Jenny Arthur, has already made the U.S. Olympic team by virtue of earning the most points at the past two world championships. Two more women will qualify at Sunday’s Olympic Trials.
Arthur and Vardanian train side by side at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, pushing each other.
“Every day I’m trying to stay on his case,” Arthur said. “It’s not that he really needs it, but I want him to be there with me, so we’re still working towards that every day.”
Vardanian may have had an easier path to Rio had he stayed in Armenia, but he realized that his future lies in America.
Vardanian’s family moved to California in 1992 following the collapse of the Soviet Union because of Urik’s politics. Norik became a U.S. citizen in 2003. After graduating from high school, he was accepted at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and lived there from 2005 to 2009.
His parents and two brothers moved back to Armenia in 2009 when Urik was invited to become the advisor to the new president.
Norik soon followed, feeling that he had plateaued as a weightlifter in the United States.
“At age 22, you should be going up,” he said. “You’re still growing, you’re still getting stronger. I felt like it got to a point where I learned everything I could have in the U.S. at that time, and in Armenia, weightlifting is the No. 1 sport — well, soccer is, but that’s a given, and we’re not very good at soccer — so weightlifting is No. 1. We’ve always had weightlifting champions. So I knew going to Armenia I would gain a lot of knowledge and a lot of different training philosophies.
“Looking back now, I wouldn’t trade that for the world.”
Vardanian’s father, who had been his coach, put him in good hands, even under the tutelage of his own former coach.
He trained in Armenia from the end of 2009 to 2013. However, Vardanian was disappointed with his Olympic performance.
“I wasn’t mentally ready for what hit me,” he said. “I stepped on the stage and my nerves took over. All these cameras and all these lights. I thought I was an experienced weightlifter — which I was, but not that kind of experience.”
Vardanian had never been to a world championships, so the Olympic Games were his first major competition.
“It was a learning experience,” Vardanian said. “And this time around I’m more than ready for it. I know what to expect.”
He also knew he wanted to pursue his next Olympics wearing red, white and blue, not red, yellow and blue.
“I chose to move (back) because I’m American,” said Vardanian, who speaks with no discernible accent. “I grew up in America. The lifestyle I live is American. I dress American. I listen to American music. I watch American movies. I love the fact that I’m Armenian — don’t get me wrong. But I wanted to live in America. I want my kids to be American. I want them to grow up living the American lifestyle and having many opportunities.”
Norik said his father respected his decision to return to the United States. Urik was named Minister of Sports for Armenia in 2013 and is now his country’s ambassador to neighboring Georgia.
“He’s like, ‘You’re a grown man, you make your own decisions as long as you have your goals set,’” Vardanian said. “He knew I was going to come here and be serious, just as serious as I was over there, if not more.
“He wants me to train and to enjoy what I do. He likes the fact that I’m in the gym every day. He likes the fact that I’m bringing weightlifting back to our family. The Vardanian last name, I’m bringing it back.”
But it is a tough name to live up to.
“Over there in Armenia, it was kind of like living in my dad’s shadow because he was such an amazing athlete,” Vardanian said.
Not only is Urik the “Michael Jordan of weightlifting,” Vardanian said, “he is the Michael Jordan in Armenia. He is the most popular athlete Armenia has ever had.
“He could go into any restaurant and not pay for his meal because they would recognize him and they wouldn’t let him pay for his meal.”
In 2005 his father was invited to the world championships in Doha, Qatar, as one of the weightlifting all-time greats, and asked Norik to accompany him.
“I’ll never forget it,” Vardanian recalled. “We walk in during a women’s session and the whole crowd just looks over at my dad. And they’re buzzing. And I’m like, ‘These women are here fighting for their world title and no one is caring about them, only the three judges that have to be there,’ but they were even looking over.
“So just to see that was amazing. That’s when I really realized… I knew he was great, but I didn’t know the impact he had made on the sport until we went there.”
The president of the international federation hurried to greet Urik. “I was like, ‘My dad, he was crazy good,’” said Vardanian.
Neither of Norik’s brothers is a weightlifter. “They chose the easy way,” he said with a laugh.
That’s because being the son of a legend comes with baggage.
“Everyone over there compared me to my dad,” Vardanian said. “Even if I would have won the Olympics, they would have been like, ‘Oh well, you didn’t break five world records like your dad did.’ I used to let that get to me, but the last year I was there, I was like, ‘You know what, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m always going to be less than my dad. So I’m just going to accept that in a way and I have my own shoes to fill.’
“So I came here and I started my own life.”
Vardanian’s father is still listed as one of his coaches, but his guidance now mainly entails critiquing videos from afar.
Arthur had heard about Urik before she met Norik.
“His dad is like the best ever to do it, so it’s always nice that he can go back and talk to him,” she said.
Arthur even jokes about sending her tapes to Urik as well, but is content with Norik helping her with her movement.
“The way he lifts is very efficient, something that you don’t always see here in America,” she said.
“My training philosophy is a mix of what my dad has taught me, what I learned in Armenia, mixed with what I feel like I need to do to make myself better,” Vardanian said.
Upon his return to the U.S., he began training in Arizona with his buddy Alex Lee, then earned another residency at the Olympic Training Center starting in 2015. At the 2015 Pan American Games, Vardanian won the silver medal behind Farris.
His father’s reaction? “Why didn’t you get the gold?” Vardanian said. “I missed the last lift that was going to get me the gold and he was pretty upset about that.
“We didn’t argue or anything, because I don’t argue with my dad. I just said, ‘OK, I gotta go.’ And it took a toll on me a little, because I was happy about that medal.
“It was awesome representing Armenia, but it’s even more awesome representing the U.S.”
At nationals, Vardanian bombed out in the clean and jerk and missed the world team. “I was like, ‘I’m either going to win or I’m going to bomb out,’ and that’s just kind of the mentality I have.”
Then at the President’s Cup in Russia in December, he broke two American records.
“Basically if I just repeat that performance, I’ll be going to the Olympics,” he said.
Vardanian said he knows his father was proud he went to the London Olympic Games and broke an Armenian record, but that’s because his mother told him so.
“The thing is, he never shows it,” Vardanian said. “Every time, no matter what I do, I can always do better. I would show him a new personal record lift that I thought was clean, and he’d always find something to complain about.
“When I was younger, it made me feel like I was never good enough. But now, I’m like, that’s his way of just making me even better — never satisfied and just striving for greatness, which is what he did.”
Urik wanted to watch his son compete in London, but Norik told him not to come because he didn’t want him picking apart his technique on the day of competition.
“I’m surprised… I thought for sure I was going to turn around somewhere and I would see him,” Vardanian said.
“But this time I’m going to tell him to go. Because I’m older now and he has a better understanding of me and I have a better understanding of him. I can tell him, ‘You know what, Dad? I’m going to do my thing now. I’m old enough.’”