In Bulgaria, there seems to be three categories of elite past lifters: Olympic Champions, Stefan Botev, and European/World Champions. We’ll leave Stefan Botev, who I like to think of as the Bulgarian Arnold Schwarzenegger for another post. Stoichkov fits into the third category.
Going back to our arrival in Slavia, General Secretary Tenev gave us a poster comemmorating 100 years of Bulgarian weightlifting. The poster tallied World, European, and Olympic medals and had pictures for each of Bulgaria’s past champions in these 3 categories. Lifters who “merely” medalled at Worlds, Olympics, and/or Europeans did not have their photo on the poster–this even includes our multi-strength sport prodigy, Euvgeny Popov, who won Silver at Europeans! (see below pictures of Popov today). The poster was our first view of Stoichkov.
When we meet Stoichkov in Slavia, he looks relatively similar though now about 92kgs bodyweight vs 75kg at his zenith. Coming from America, I had never heard of Stoichov before. Sure, I was very familiar with Botev, Georgiev, Boevski, Minchev, Peschalov, Ivanov, Vanev, Dobrev ..etc, etc… but I had not heard of Stoichkov. By the end of the week, this all changed my view on Olympic greats and the ramfications of boycotting Olympics.
Anyhow, soon we see pictures in the lifting office of Stoichkov winning the Druzba Game in 1984. I then realize– he out clean and jerked my all time hero Pyrros Dimas!! Stoichkov had lifted 167.5 and 211 at 75kgs bodywieght, and , at 82.5kg , he did 217 clean and jerk! He had accumulated atleast 6 senior world records plus Junior world records. He had a standing long jump of 380 cm !! And, again, did I mention, he out clean and jerked at lighter bodyweight my all time hero, Pyrros Dimas !?! …And I had never heard of Stoichkov before?
With the above, I have another epiphany: due to misfortunes of boycotted ’84 Olympics followed by knee injury, Stoichkov, perhaps like American athetes in 1980, would outperform the 1984 Olympic Champion at an Eastern Block supplementary meet but never have the benefit of being called “Olympic Champion”. Having not been alive in 1980, the ’80 and ’84 boycotts were always someting of an after thought – ya know “it happens”. Now, I really appreciate the gravity of it. Sport transcends politics; it is the athlete who is the ultimate ambassador for unity (Not Jimmy Carter … ahhhhh …and I’m usaully partial to Carter as he also spent time at Georgia Tech and is a nuclear engineer ).
Aside from past achevements, Stoichkov is a fascinating character. At 42 and 92kgs, he works out between training sessions. He does light sets with over 200kgs in Back Squat and did vertical leaps at eye level. Most surprisingly, his biceps are huge!! Seriously, look at the pictures; one might never guess that his biceps are larger than my calves– maybe, even larger than my quads.
What surprised me mst was the appearances of Georgiev and Peschalov later in my training camp. The first few days, Stoichkov was coaching 3 male junior lfters and 4 female junior lifters (3 of whom had been lifting barely a month). His son, Nikolai , was one of the most advanced lifters: about 85 kgs with lifts easily rivalling our best JR’s in the US and good looking. There was Munchel lifting about a month; Sylvia, schoolage champion; “Howa”, the not so serious JR lifter; two girls who’d show up; and the 12yr girl, super dedicated and fluent in English. Stoichkov was also named coach of Bulgaria’s 2008 Junior World Team within the first few days of our stay in Bulgaria. From the above, I had the inital impression that Stoichkov coached mostly Juniors. Then, Georgiev and Peschalov show-up.
Serendipitously, the training cycle for the Bulgarian Olympic team started a few days into our stay in Bulgaria. Stefan Georgiev had already been named to Bulgaria’s 2008 Olympic team and began showing-up for double sessions to train with Stoichkov for the Olympics. Apparently, there is another training facility for the national team, but Georgiev prefers training in Slavia and must stop in for training with the national team every few weeks. Similarly, Peschalov, lifting for Croatia but living in Bulgaria, arrives to train with Stoichkov. It is then I also learn that Peschalov trained with Stoichkov prior to his gold in Sydney.
So, here I am in Slavia, and I find myself surrounded by a 12 year old girl doing jumps, a 14 year old female champ, a 15yr old guy whose been liftng for a month, Howa, Nikolai Stoichkov….AND Georgiev AND Peschalov. Each lifter getting appropriate attention from Stoichkov. The Champions, Georgiev and Peschalov, each having a turn racking or loading the 12yr olds’ weights. When I am liftng, I even notice the Champs paying attention to my lifts- some eye contact, politely not talking.
I cannot not describe how nervous I was just cleaning 80 kgs when Peschalov walked-in: it was like being in high school…thinking to myself “please don’t look stupid, please don’t screw up”.
I should also mention that several champions stopped by just to hang out, including Svedalin Minchev, Stefan Botev, and 56kg Olympic Champion Gidikov. Evoking similar sentiments of admiration.