Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Kindness of strangers.... .


Bulgaria was once, like Hungary, a gymnastics power where athletes like Diana Dudeva, the country's only Olympic medallist and her team mate Boriana Stoyanova  reigned among the supreme on the world stage.  Nowadays we are lucky to even see a Bulgarian artistic gymnast in competition-let alone on a podium.  Like many Eastern European countries, funding for gymnastics was adversely affected in the seventies and eighties as the countries moved away from communism, and sporting programs  were no longer being centrally funded and maintained.  

In fact, according to Gymnastics Greats, the situation in Bulgaria got so dire that their gymnastics federation nearly had to remove its gymnastics team from the 1991 World Championships because of lack of funds- until an American company heard about their financial situation and stepped in, sponsoring them to compete.

I know that when I think of Bulgarian artistic gymnastics, one particular gymnast comes to mind. The wonderful Silvia Mitova.  Mitova is probably best remembered for her famous "Blues for Kook" floor routine, an exquisite concoction of deliciously strange music and wonderfully whacky post-eighties dance.  If you haven't seen it, it's one of those gymnastics must-sees. Watch it here.
 (Some hated the music.  I loved it.  Whatever you think, be sure to check out Kathy J purring "it feels gooood" at the end of it.  Hi-larious!)

But that floor routine was only one element of Mitova's incredible gymnastics career.  There was plenty more to her sad story with its happy ending.

Silvia was the Bulgarian National Champion no less than five times and was one of the only gymnasts on the Bulgarian team still allowed to compete at the 1992 Olympics after many tested positive for use of diuretics, the same substance found in the Vietnamese gymnast in Beijing last year.  Mitova eventually placed 11th in the AA and 8th on the floor.

Many also don't know that she was nearly injured for life, or that it was a South African gymnastics supporter who saved her.  
While training for the 1993 World Championships, Mitova fell attempting a double-double in training and broke a vertebrae in her back.  She was paralysed for two weeks before an operation in Paris helped her to walk again.  She would still require further operations if she were ever to attempt gymnastics again.

 Just before her accident, Silvia had been invited to take part in a competition that would be part of a sports festival taking place in South Africa where gymnastics was becoming popular.  When she canceled due to her injury, a man called Wessel Oosthuizen, the father of a South African National Team member, encouraged her to come anyway.  He also introduced her to a generous neurosurgeon called Johann Wasserman who offered to perform a final operation on Silvia for free.  He took a bone graft from her hip and was able to fix her back.
The operation was such a success that within the year, she was told she would be able to do gymnastics again.  For Mitova, being told this in December, this was a dream come true, something she described as a wonderful christmas present.  Unfortunately she never made it to the 1996 Olympics as she had dreamed.

(Silvia with the Doctor who operated on her for free, Johann)

Her life has been very full, though and she never left gymnastics.  She married and later moved to the USA, taking both her parents, Maia and Zarko, who had been gymnasts and competed on the Bulgarian National gymnastics team in their days too.  They also coached Silvia through her career.  
Nowadays Silvia, her mother, father and husband all run Silvia's Gymnastics together in Zieglerville.  Between them all they have over sixty years of coaching experience to impart to young gymnasts in the area.  

(Sylvia as coach)

In 2008, Wessel Oosthuizen, the man who had invited Silvia to come to South Africa all those years ago, despite her injuries, came to the USA on a visit.  He again invited Silvia- though this time as coach to her gymnasts who were asked to come to South Africa to compete.   Eleven of her gymnasts went, along with their coaches and families, where they stayed with host families and trained and competed with South African gymnasts on what they called a twelve-day gymnastics safari.

(Some of Silvia's gymnasts who went to South Africa)

Silvia remains eternally grateful to both Johan Wasserman and to Wessel Osthuizen for their generosity.

 "After I got hurt, Wessel was the one who invited me to Africa.  He helped me get an MRI done.  He paid for the hospital stay there. He helped me so much.  He came here in January and invited the whole team to come there.  I thought it would be a a great opportunity for them.  I think South Africa is a beautiful country and the people there are lovely"

(A very young Sylvia at the junior Europeans)

Silvia's gymnasts claimed they had a wonderful time in South Africa, seeing how the gymnasts lived and worked over there.  Silvia also has two children,  Jessica and Justin and hosts the Silvia Mitova Invitational gymnastics meets each year.  
Life sounds good in the Mitova camp, especially compared to what it could have been.


  1. I love this post about Mitova. She's amazing. You should check out Zoia Grancharova's floor routine from 1981 worlds. She was another awesome Bulgarian. I want more variety in gymnastics today too.

  2. .... en ou Wessel is my jarelange vriend. Dankie vir jou insette in haar loopbaan ou China. Ek is baie trots op jou.

  3. Our daughter competed at Silvia's 2010 invitational yesterday. What a wonderful gym, well organized and inviting,with enthusiastic volunteers!
    So,perhaps's Silvia's dream lives on!

    Peter and Emma Snelling

  4. Our daughter has the priviledge of training with Silvia and her parents right now. They are wonderful people and great coaches!

  5. Wow! I have only seen this now. When she arrived in South Africa, I had black hair and looked like her boyfriend. When she left three months later, I was grey and looked like her grandfather. Silvia's friend forever

  6. силвия и неините родители са страхотни аз съм тренирала снея много отдавна

  7. julia rothenbergerOctober 29, 2010 at 7:16 PM

    wow i can only imagine if i stayed with gymnastics, if i caould have gone to south africa!

  8. johan Wasserman is such a legend, what a perfect example of how our human race still has something to offer!! this man is not only a personal freind but an amazing neurosurgeon! he deserves credit for his contribution