By Amanda Turner with Simona Ivanova in Sofia
(International Gymnast, January 2003 issue)
As mentor to Elizabet Paisiyeva, Stela Salapatiyska has rebounded from a painful past.
Once upon a time, the Bulgarian rhythmic gymnasts stunned the world
with their brilliance, earning public adoration along with world titles
Forever known as the " Golden Girls of Bulgaria", legendary champions
Lilia Ignatova, Deliana Georgieva, Iliana Raeva, and Anelia Ralenkova
are national heroes to this day..
The 1990s brought political and economic change to Bulgaria, but the
harsh methods used to push the gymnasts toward perfection remained.
National team member Stela Salapatiyska of Plovdiv experienced that
system firsthand, but when she stood up against it, her promising
career was cut short..
On the eve of the 1997 World Championships in Berlin, Salapatiyska
and teammate Maria Gateva had a falling out with head coach Neshka
Robeva. Both were suspended from competition for two years. Even
with the help of a new coach, Slapatiyska had lost all hope of
competing. She chose to retire and enroll at the National Sports
Academy in Sofia..
"I retired because of the conflict we had with Neshka," Salapatiyska
says, "I couldn't survive Robeva's methods of coaching.".
Berlin was the second major setback of Salapatiyska, who did not
make the '96 Olympic team despite her fifth-place finish at the '96
Europeans. Instead, Diana Popova, who finished seventh, was
selected to compete in Atlanta..
Despite the disappointment of an unfulfilled career, Salapatiyska
hasn't turned her back on rhythmic gymnastics---or on Bulgaria.
Today the 23-year old lives in Sofia and coaches at Club Iliana,
founded by Raeva. There she encountered a talented girl named
Elizabet Paisiyeva, and began coaching her in 1999. Now
Salapatiyska says she is glad she turned down offers to work
abroad. "Elizabet has kept me here," Salapatiyska says, "The
work is a pleasure for me and I don't regret that I stayed.".
At Club Iliana---the first private gymnastics club in Bulgaria---
Slapatiyska serves as coach, mentor and friend to Paisiyeva,
a two-event finalist at the 2001 worlds. When asked if she employs
the same methods she was trained under, Salapatiyska answers
with a resounding no. "These methods were wrong." she asserts.
"The times are changing and the methods of coaching are changing.
Creating conflict doesn't lead to good results. But since I have
learned from therse methods, they help me now.".
As can be expected, the young coach is eager to be influenced
by the wisdom of experienced trainers. But the unpredictable
Salapatiyska surprisingly lists the legendary Robeva as one of
those coaches, preferring to concentrate on the future instead of
dwelling on the past..
"I have learned and I am still learning from every big specialist---
including Neshka Robeva," she says. "Now I am trying to learn
from Iliana Raeva, Emiulia Boneva, and Zlatka Boncheva, as well
as other Bulgarian specialists, and even from our direct rivals in
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.".
Salapatiyska, who describes Paisiyeva as both hard-working and
responsible, says one facet of her own training that she requires is
complete dedication from her gymnasts..
"The world-class athlete requires a lot of sacrificing, and anyone who
thinks they can become a champion without a lot of work is going to
fail," she says. "But it's not necessary that this work be
accompanied by cruelty from the coach. I think that it's more
important that the coach be supportive, and to succeed in motivating
the competitor to withstand tough workouts. I have a lot of
requirements, but I try to get the results through the desire and
ambition of both of us, not through creating conflicts.".
Both Slapatiyska and Paisiyeva define their relationship as close.
"we trust each other very much," Paisiyeva says. "I love her very
Adds Slapatiyska, "Our relationship is more like between friends
than between coach and gymnast.".
Truth is, the two are often mistaken for teammates, particularly
when they travel abroad to competitions. "Once my coach, another
gymnast, and I were changing planes in Moscow to go to Tokyo,"
Paisiyva says, "The airport personnel were kind of worried and
asked us where our coach was, and why were allowed to travel by
ourselves. Then Stela told them that she was the coach, and not
worry. The personel thought we were joking! We laughed so much.".
At the worlds in Madrid, Paisiyeva was the youngest of all the
competitors. The youthful pairing of Elizabet and Stela, just 14 and
22 at the time, led one Spanish paper to affectionately dub them
"Las Bebes" ("The Babies")..
In Madrid the Bulgarians were a close fourth as a team, and at the
2002 European Championships in Granada, the earned the bronze..
Paisiyeva admires the aforementioned "Golden Girls" of Bulgaria---
"when I watch them I get goose bumps" ---but also the present
queen of the sport, Alina Kabayeva. "I try to learn from her how
to perform with a pleasant mood and execution," she explains.
"I admire her for what she shows and what she's achieved.".
Along with Simona Peycheva, Paisiyeva is part of a new
generation of Bulgarian rhythmic gymnasts trying to recapture
the magic of its golden years. So far the coaches have been
frustrated by the tight judging on their way back to the top, but
for Paisiyeva, the inspiration lies elsewhere..
"For me, the real judge is my coach," she says..