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Casa Grande senior making sacrifices, strides for potential Olympic shot

Yordan Aleksandrov’s strongest event is not the strength-based rings, above, but the bars, which require more fluid grace. (COURTESY PHOTO)

Yordan Aleksandrov’s strongest event is not the strength-based rings, above, but the bars, which require more fluid grace. (COURTESY PHOTO)

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

NOVATO – Yordan Aleksandrov lives in Santa Rosa, goes to school in Petaluma and trains almost daily in Novato, all in the hope of representing Bulgaria in Rio de Janeiro.

Rootless? Perhaps, but the Casa Grande High senior says all the wandering is justified. He doesn’t begrudge his tightly packed schedule. He embraces it.

“I kind of like it, to be honest,” Aleksandrov said recently before a workout at the Novato Gymnastics Center, his math textbook open before him on the seat of a folding chair. “For example, if I had a lot of time after school, like if I had more social time, I

would be relaxing now. I wouldn’t be doing my homework. Now I have a challenge, and I tell myself to finish as fast as I can.”

There is not a lot of relaxation built into Yordan Aleksandrov’s daily itinerary. One of his parents drives him from Santa Rosa to Casa Grande for school. His father, Dimitar, picks him up afterward and transports him to Novato for gymnastics. He does homework while his father works with younger boys. Then he works out for four hours. This occurs each weekday, with another four-hour stint on Saturday.

Six events make up the gymnastic all-around competition. Aleksandrov practices three events one day, three the next.

It should be noted that Aleksandrov, 18, is very good at his sport. He competed at the men’s Junior Olympic National Championships at Portland, Ore., in May and took home a gold medal on the horizontal bar and a silver on the parallel bars in the 17-18 age group. (Aleksandrov is 5-foot-7 or 5-8, tall for a gymnast; he struggles on the strength-based rings, but does well on the bars, which require more fluid grace.) He was eighth in the all-around competition.

“I was not as surprised as happy” with the results, Aleksandrov said.

But Dimitar was pleasantly surprised. The American gymnastic style, he says, shows a preference for difficult, explosive moves while overlooking the subtleties. He says Yordan performs in a more European style, carefully nailing all of the small technical moves. He wasn’t sure how the judges in Portland would gauge Yordan’s routines. Obviously, they reacted positively.

Now comes another level. Yordan leaves for Antwerp, Belgium, on Sept. 19 for the world championships — the World Artistic Gymnastic Championships, as they are called. The competition won’t be limited to 18-year-olds this time. He’ll be going against the best in the world at any age.

Aleksandrov does not expect to medal in Antwerp. This is a practice run — a “trampoline to something in the future,” as Dimitar put it. That something, Aleksandrov hopes, is the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

If Yordan makes it that far, he won’t be wearing the red, white and blue of the United States. He’ll be in the white, green and red of Bulgaria, his first home. Aleksandrov has dual citizenship. The family spends a month in Bulgaria every summer, mostly in Dimitar’s hometown of Ruse, along the Danube River and the northern border with Romania.

But Yordan’s decision to compete for a spot on the Bulgarian team had little to do with national pride. He simply has a much smaller chance of making the U.S. team.

Yordan’s parents met at Bulgaria’s Higher Institute for Physical Culture. Their reasons for moving to America would sound familiar to a lot of immigrants: better job opportunities, more educational choices for their only child, who was 7 at the time. The family settled in Napa, where Diana Alexandrova’s brother helped run the Gymnastics Zone club. Dimitar immediately began working at Redwood Empire Gymnastics in Petaluma. He brought Yordan along with him.

“I was surprised when I first came here that not many people know about gymnastics,” Yordan said. “The United States, they love football, baseball, things like that, but not usually gymnastics. They just think of it as cartwheels and handstands.”

At that time, Dimitar said, Yordan showed no special aptitude for the sport. It was only through tireless, monotonous, daily effort that his son began to emerge as an elite gymnast.

“The key is very simple: Every day you have to work,” Dimitar said. “But most of the people, they don’t understand. They think it’s always about secrets, about mystery. It’s not secrets. It’s not mystery. It’s hard work.”

By the time the family moved to Santa Rosa, it was easier to put Yordan in school in Petaluma, where he was closer to the gym. His life, it seems, has always revolved around the gym. Yordan admits that he doesn’t have a rich social life outside of gymnastics. Most of his close friends are teammates. Not all kids could be this focused.

“From the youngest ages, like 11, he was the leader on the whole team,” Dimitar said. “He was the best gymnast, and he led them everywhere. From this point, it’s hard for him. Sometimes he is very frustrated, because they don’t understand how it’s important to have focus, to have discipline. … Sometimes he don’t understand why these kids are here if you aren’t working 100 percent.”

The Aleksandrovs were thrown off course a little more than a year ago, when Redwood Empire Gymnastics told Dimitar he could no longer use the facilities. He had been working regularly with a dozen boys or more, and suddenly they were without a gym. He went two months with no income before reaching an agreement to use his current space. He hopes to open his own gym in the near future.

Dimitar is not officially affiliated with the Novato center. Hundreds of kids competed at the Junior Olympic National Championships. Only two were listed as unaffiliated: Yordan and his teammate, Chandler Gozashti of Penngrove.

Moving from one gym to another was definitely a hardship. Moving between two countries is more complex, but has rewards, too.

“I definitely feel that it’s an advantage,” Yordan said. “I love the fact that I live here, I train here, but also I’m from a different country. It’s good to remember where you came from, and to remember your roots. That’s very important.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.