By Vera Marinova-Atkinson
An hour before the Olympic finals of rhythmic gymnastics, Iliana Raeva roves the training hall like a tigress in a cage. She wares a blouse with slim shoulder straps, her training suit top part flatters carelessly around her waist and her jerky bracelet-like earrings are swinging.
She catches me at a corner, stares hypnotizingly at me and almost hissing says:
- "How have you let this happen?! How could we have got into a situation, where nobody has any respect for us? They treat us like we are no one... No one at all!"
It is neither the right time, nor the right place, and it doesn't come to my mind how I can make a historical and philosophical survey of "Bulgarian Rhythmic Gymnastics - Rise and Fall" so that I can calm Iliana down.
"It's her first Olympic Games and it's crisis time."- I'm thinking - "It's hardly surprising she's going insane?"
With some girls from her club participating, Iliana is in a rage even before the Group Exercise finals have began. She is furious about their first day scores, about the disregard of the puffed up RG community around and most of all, because of her gloomy feeling about the finals in the next two-three hours.
When our girls have already finished their performance, Iliana rushes into the semi-deserted pressroom and shouts right from the doorstep:
- "Did you see?! No, just tell me - did you see? Have you ever seen such an outrage?!"
I have seen just about all there is to see in RG, but right now I cannot explain anything to Iliana, though I wanted. I am working. Iliana guesses, shortens her tirade and flies out through the door.
Tim R., a decent and quiet, middle aged Austra-lian journalist, sitting next to me, shuts his widely opened mouth and whispers in a dream: "Oh, God, how beautiful she is! And how vital! Who is she?"
To prevent any misunderstandings, it is now the time to make it clear, that Iliana didn't even notice Tim's presence, nor did she feel his admiration. And he was startled enough by the honor to have seen "alive" a colossal RG star and the fact that he is busy enough not see her ever again, even if he wanted. I am sharing all this with you, because it's a typi-cal example of how Iliana impresses people, who see her for the first time.
And indeed, the unforgettable sports journalist Margarita Rangelova called her "The Queen". Iliana used to walk onto the floor like a Queen, charmed the audience like a Queen, and expected to be treated like nothing less than a Queen..
It seems to me, that nowadays, after all Iliana's transformations during the passed years, we should add "provocative" to her description as well. Iliana always knows what she wants and has no secrets about the way to achieve it. She is of the vanishing type of people "I say what I think" and, most natu-rally, that brings more worries than joy. Iliana could be a gladiator, but not an MP. She is totally un-aware of diplomatic tricks and has no chance of learning any.
Iliana Raeva is a key person in Bulgarian Rhyth-mic Gymnastics. She broke through and cleared the path for the outstanding "golden" generation, which dominated the world sports arena more than a decade, in the 80-ies and early 90-ies.
She was the first Bulgarian woman, from whom the audience demanded and indeed who won a gold medal (at the World Championship in London'79, clubs).
The first Bulgarian to become an absolute Eu-ropean champion (in Amsterdam'80).
The first to form a private RG club in Bulgaria ("Iliana" sports club, in December 1993) and last, but not least, the first to shake her finger at an en-tire former generation and to ask: "How have you let this happen?"
Iliana was born a leader - since the time, when she brought her entire neighborhood (Lili and Kamelia Ignatovy, Anelia Ralenkova, Tereza Karnich, Galina Rangelova, Maria Kouzmanova and so on) to "Gerena" RG hall to be taught the sports alphabet by Zlatka Boncheva. To enter her fairy worlds without even realizing that Zlatka was modeling them for the big gymnastics scene.
Iliana continued to be a leader during the years, when Neshka Robeva's creative genius and iron turned the neighborhood phenomenon into a worldwide one. The powerful champions producing sys-tem and the entire Bulgarian people's love for the sport endorsed that.
So when she established her club, she had no other choice, but to continue to develop her talent as a leader.
For the period between 1978 and 1983, Iliana tucked under her belt 5 gold, 8 silver and 6 bronze medals from the World and European Champion-ships and the first Word Cup.
She left some wonderful performances in the RG history: ball - on Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata", ribbon - on Mikis Theodorakis's "Zorba The Greek", clubs - on Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake".
Most of all, Iliana left the memory of her vital femininity, which helped her to keep control over the audience however and whenever she wanted.
Later Iliana ceased competing, deeply disappointed. (The same happens to almost 90% of high-class competitors all over the world). She swore to forget the phrase "rhythmic gymnastics" and to focus on her duties as a wife and a mother. During all these years, Nasko Sirakov won recognition as an international football star, and their daughters -Slaveya and Violeta grew up.
And as it happens with the above mentioned 90%, who, sooner or later, come back to the "hell", they have left, Iliana returned to the "shooting ground ", full of ambitions, ideas and starving for work - to create "something of her own, something unique, something, preserving only the positive ex-perience of the past" (I.R.).
Now, seven years later, the results are obvious. "Iliana" club is already turning into a mighty incu-bator, "producing" high-quality competitors. Margy Rangelova's "Queen" no longer wants to be noticed herself, but her gymnasts, her club and her country as well. As it was...
Now Iliana is fighting not for a crown, but for the IDENTITY of the new generation in Bulgarian rhythmic gymnastics. And that, as you know, is a lifetime goal...