(Ulimate Frisbee in Armenia

Michael Kevin Farrell -reprinted from the Summer 2002 issue of the Ultimate Players Association newspaper

Armenia video
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“Eench?  Ultimate?”  - a ten year old Armenian student at Yerevan Public School #65

In 2002, I was accepted into the Cambridge Yerevan Sister City Assocation (CYSCA) - an exchange program between Armenians and Americans. For two weeks in February, I had the pleasure of hosting Arsen Manukyan, a 25 year old from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. A lot of memorable events took place during his time here, including going snow-tubing for the first time, hanging out in Quincy Market, seeing a Weezer concert, and witnessing the Patriots first ever Superbowl championship.

Pats Win
Arsen is the one with the blue cap under the banner. He also learned other useful sayings like "Yankees suck."

From June 20th through July 2nd, I had the incredible opportunity to stay with Arsen and his family in Yerevan.

One of the main CYSCA themes is cultural exchange, and I had to teach something to the Armenian children. But what? I decided to teach Ultimate Frisbee. Shortly after making this decision, I read an article by Scott Todd, a Peace Corps volunteer who (amongst other tasks) taught Ultimate to students in Turkmenistan (a country I've never been to). It provided many insights on how to teach students from another culture. Luckily for me, Armenia turned out to be light years ahead of Turkmenistan in terms of freedom and gender equality. Although Armenia's government is corrupt, it is a democracy in which women do have the right to vote (and, despite widespread gender inequality, a few women are even members of the Armenian Parliament). Turkmenistan by contrast has been ruled for decades by a ruthless dictator who calls himself Turkmenbashi (father of all Turkmen people). This man built a golden statue of himself in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat (which rotates to always face the sun!).

Statue of Turkmenbashi
Turkmenbashi (aka Saparmurat Niyazov) in all his "glory." In my opinion, only David Ortiz should have a golden statue that rotates to always face the sun.

Thanks to the incredible generosity of Discovering the World (CA), Discraft (MI), GAIA Ultimate Sports (Vancouver), the World Flying Disc Federation, and the Wright Life (CO), I received donations totalling 85 flying discs to take with me to Armenia to give to the children there. In addition, my friend's father translated the directions to Ultimate into Armenian. With discs and directions in hand, I was bound for the Mother Country.

Growing up, I did not talk much about being half
Armenian; my friends had never heard of this
landlocked and mountainous place.  To make matters worse, it was a republic of the Soviet Union, a place that I was taught to fear and despise.  What could you brag about being Armenian?  That in 301 AD, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a state religion?  That it made great brandy?  My friends would be thoroughly unimpressed with either fact and, growing up, so was I.

Though I went to an Armenian church, I did not feel Armenian. First, the chuch was in the Armenian mecca of Watertown - 45 minutes from my home in Billerica, Mass. At my Armenian chuch, most kids spoke Armenian; I did not. They had dark hair and brown eyes; I had blue eyes and the whitest skin this side of Yerevan.

The Armenian kids all had first names like Tamar, Haig, and Armen and last names like Sarkisian, Bedrosian and Malakian. My name is as Irish as Guiness, even if one tries to add the -ian or -yan suffixes. Michael Kevin Farrellian? No one was fooled.

Then a funny thing happened. My junior year, I spent a semester in Ireland and met my relatives there (father's side). Upon my return to the USA, everyone kept asking when I was going to explore my mother's heritage and go to Armenia. The questions kept coming and after awhile I began to read up on Armenia (books like Black Dog of Fate and The Forty Days of Musa Dagh). So it came to pass that five months in Ireland did more for my desire to see Armenia than 16 years of going to an Armenian Church.

Black Dog of Fate
Damn good book

When I arrived in Yerevan's gray, drab airport, I eagerly passed through the security points with the other CYSCA group members. Armenia used to be a Republic of the USSR (and it shows - drab concrete buildings are everywhere).

Yerevan Airport
Grey: the new black

I looked up from my paperwork to see an incredible entourage of Armenians in the next room cheering, waving American flags and holding signs written in English that welcomed us. Armenian hospitality, I would quickly learn, was something you have to see to believe.

Second Family
My second family. Mt. Ararat is in the back right.

There are a suprising amount of sights to see in Armenia. Lake Sevan has sandy beaches, and peddle boats to rent out. Mountains surround the Lake, making it quite picturesque. Mt. Ararat, Armenia's national symbol, towers over Yerevan (though Mt. Ararat today is actually part of Turkey). Many other sights are of the religious variety, since 95% of Armenians belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. One example is Etchmiadzin, the headquarters of the Church.

Lake Sevan

The most moving sight was The Armenian Genocide Monument, which has an eternal flame for the more than one million Armenians killed. My own grandfather fled the genocide. He was a cook at the Ebenezer orphanage in Marash, Turkey (and was actually hidden by one of the orphans named Sarkis SeghBazarian when the Turkish soldiers came to kill Armenian adults). After fleeing, he wound up in Aleppo, Syria and eventually made it to the Armenian mecca of Watertown, Mass. Sarkis SeghBazarian lived a few streets over in the same town. I was fortunate to spend a good amount of time with both men.

Eternal Flame
Eternal flame of the Armenian Genocide Monument

A must see for me was William Saroyan's grave site. Half of his ashes are in Yerevan, Armenia, while the other half are in his hometown of Fresno, California (a major hub of Armenians in the USA). He's a phenomenal writer (everyone should read The Human Comedy). In his right hand, he holds a pomegranate - a symbol of strength and perserverance in the Armenian culture.

William Saroyan's Grave
Since the Armenian language doesn't have the 'W' sound, they pronounce his first name 'Villiam'

My favorite sight of all - and this will sound silly - was the ferris wheel in Victory Park. When you're at the top of the ferris wheel, you feel like you're eye level with the top of Mt. Ararat.

I taught the game of Ultimate to groups in Armenia in schools and in neighborhoods; we'd usually have an average of 20-30 students there as well as parents and teachers to keep order. I wanted to get their attention, and I did this by looking as American as I could (baseball cap, sneakers, shorts, and a T-shirt with an NFL team logo on it). My friend Arsen and I would then start playing catch with the Frisbee, and the kids would get quite excited, and indicated that they wanted in on whatever the hell this crazy American was doing. After teaching them to throw and catch, I would wait for the inevitable first bit of pushing and shoving. At this point, I would say 'votch' (no in Armenian) and Arsen would re-iterate that Ultimate is strictly a non-contact sport. Generally speaking, you had few problems after making an example of the first kid.

Armenian kids
"Psst - why does this American want us to play with a plastic dish?"

Since gender inequality is so blatant in Armenia, I did some social engineering and required all teams in every game to be co-ed. Girls tended to be more effective Ultimate players, since they went for shorter, accurate passes. Many of the boys simply tried to huck the disc as far as they could to a friend in the end zone (which had a 99% failure rate due to inaccurate throws).

Incidentally, the name 'Ultimate' never caught on with any of the groups I taught in Armenia. 'Frisbee Football' is what everyone called it (which made sense, since the World Cup was being played during my time there). I thought of trying to explain that 'Frisbee' was a trademarked name by the Wham O Corporation, and that these were actually 'discs' but I let it slide. As a rule, ten year olds are generally indifferent to US patent and copyright law.

One trait all of the groups shared was that they'd all yell 'GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAL!' and run wildly when they scored (as if in the World Cup). This never ceased to amuse me. Frisbee football indeed.

Frisbee Football
Controlled chaos

I had an incredible time while in Armenia, and again, was blown away by the hospitality. I was able to see the Armenian Genocide Monument, pick up some of the language, swim in gorgeous Lake Sevan and view breath-taking and important churches like Etchmiadzin, explore Yerevan with Arsen and my other Armenian friends. But the most rewarding and memorable activities was teaching Ultimate to the Armenian children. I will be back someday to visit Arsen, and I'll bring some discs with me.

Arsen and me
Arsen (left) and yours truly. He's the one named "Arsen," yet I'm the fire performer. Go figure.



My wife and I had Michael and his partner spin at our wedding reception. It was a suprise for my wife who had always said she wanted fire spinners at her wedding, but she never really thought it was possible. Michael did a fantastic job corresponding with me to set everything up, and was very flexible to meet my requests...

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