When athlete spouses Artur and Alla Mikayelyan began teaching a group of children to ski in their remote northwestern village of Ashotsk in 1998, many welcomed the generous initiative. At the time, few could have imagined that some of those children, learning on the rudimentary slopes in Shirak province, would go on to become Armenia's ambassadors to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Skiing is an established pastime in Ashotsk, dubbed "Armenian Siberia" for its long, frigid winters. But in the nineties, it was an extravagance to ski in a region hard hit by the 1988 earthquake and a reeling economy. Equipment was expensive, and athletes would rotate poles and skis in three, two-hour shifts.
The hard work of the Mikayelyans was destined to pay off however, as the skiers began to gain local recognition. Today, some have become the nation's Olympians. Artur and Alla's son, 21-year-old Sergey Mikayelyan, was the first of the group to reach the elite level, participating in the 15-kilometer cross-country competition at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.
"Seeing that my parents were involved in cross-country skiing, I decided to be like them," said the athlete, who began intensive training at age eight. Sergey admits he grew frustrated with the demands of the sport as a teen, and quit for a time.
"It got very hard at one point. Since my parents were my coaches, I always argued and had disagreements with them." Ultimately, he had a change of heart and returned more determined.
The young athlete was selected to lead the four-member Team Armenia—all fellow skiers—at the 2014 Sochi Olympics opening ceremony.
Sergey's teammate, 24-year-old Artur Yeghoyan, also trained under the direction of Artur and Alla. For the past five years, he has trained twice a day for two to three hour sessions. He takes only one day a week off for rest.
Ashotsk, with its below-freezing temperatures, is theoretically an ideal place for skiing. But the facilities are far below international standards.
Alla says that during the summer, they train on the dangerous highway, for lack of a better place. At competitions, observers are astonished when she describes where they train.
"We have no proper conditions in Ashotsk. We have no means to prepare skiing paths—we do everything ourselves," she said.
"We receive support from the Ski Federation, such as equipment, and also get assistance from the Olympic Committee, but it is still not enough." She hopes that future generations of athletes will be able to train on improved infrastructure.
Armenian Ski Federation Secretary-General Gagik Sargsyan is conscious that the sport is a work in progress.
"It is very difficult for the Ski Federation to solve all of the problems alone. The head of the Ski Federation plans to visit Ashotsk to work out a plan for development after the Olympics," he said. The Federation has no official sponsors.
Sargsyan says that the schools and clubs operating from Vanazdor to Aparan are a testament to the sport's potential. Tsakhkadzor, known as a winter resort town, hosts an alpine skiing school. In fact, during Soviet times, athletes from all over the Soviet Union would come here to train. Gyumri has a similar training facility for cross-country skiing.
Alla says it is not only poor conditions that hamper the development of skiing in Armenia, but also conservative mentalities towards female participation. A former Olympian born in Russia, she notes that very few girls in Armenia take up skiing. Those who manage to overcome traditional attitudes do not stick with the sport for long.
Gyumri native Katya Galstyan has no time for such conservatism. The 21-year-old, Armenia's only female representative at the Sochi Olympics, can no longer imagine her life without skiing.
A chance meeting with Slavik Sargsyan, the head of the Armenian ski team, convinced Katya—then 16—to start training.
"I never thought it would become my profession, or that one day I would participate in the Olympics, competing against the worlds best skiers said Katya, who would one day like to become a coach.
"Even as a child, Katya loved snow—she would never get cold," said her mother, Karine Gevorgyan, who recalls hard times when the skier was born: "Only a few years had passed since the devastating earthquake and the country was at war. We couldn't even get to the maternity hospital."
"We were short on everything—we couldn't heat our houses, so we had to warm up outside," said Gevorgyan, who beams with pride that Katya will represent Armenia at Sochi.
Arman Serebrakian, a 26-year-old American citizen, hails from a vastly different background. The alpine skier, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Iran 25 years ago, was raised in California.
But the athlete, who began training at age two, is passionate about representing his motherland. He was also influenced by his sister Ani-Matilda, an alpine skier who represented Armenia at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
"My dream was to participate in the Olympics and show the world that Armenia also has strong athletes," said the skier.
On the eve of Sochi, he said: "It is an honor to represent Armenia."