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How Stela Got Her Groove Back

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 much.".
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..