At the end of first grade, 7-year-old Yordan Aleksandrov finished the school year with the best grades and the best spelling in his class. Yet Yordan was not always the class standout. Just a year earlier, no one in his grade would have suspected that the boy who quietly sat at the back of the classroom would one day become the star student.
Three months into first grade, Yordan’s teacher came up to his father and asked why no one had told her that Yordan was not American. For one-third of the school year, not a single person in Yordan’s classroom noticed that he couldn’t speak or write in English – probably because he was quietly working away, teaching himself how to speak and write in his new home country’s language.
To add fuel to the fire of being a first-generation immigrant, Yordan had only completed preschool in his native Bulgaria and had skipped kindergarten upon coming to the United States. It was thus that much harder for him to adjust to the new language and the new people.
“I don’t have any clue or idea as to how Yordan caught on so quickly,” says Dimitri, Yordan’s father. “My wife and I didn’t have experience with English, and we were running our own business, so we couldn’t help him with school or the language.”
Yordan was a small, shy boy just trying to learn the ways of a brand new country by observing his peers and practicing the language on his own.
“In the beginning, I just sat at the back of the classroom, listening to all of the other kids,” Yordan says.
Although it’s impossible to be sure how exactly Yordan learned such an important and new skill as just a 7-year-old, the same work ethic has stuck with Yordan throughout his whole life.
It’s May 28, 2002, in Ruse, Bulgaria, and 7-year-old Yordan’s life is about to change forever. He’s about to embark on many firsts: traveling on a plane across the globe and leaving his home country and friends, to name a few. His parents, Dimitri and Diane Aleksandrov, are also leaving behind their family, business and house in hopes of a better life in the land of hope. Immigrating to America was a big risk, but the Aleksandrov’s took the risk head on, moving across the world while hoping to remain in touch with their Bulgarian roots.
“I also wanted to keep my roots, so I taught myself to read and write in Bulgarian with the help of my parents,” Yordan says. “It’s something I go by, because I never want to forget where I came from.”
Yordan would read magazines and online articles about sports in Bulgarian, helping him catch on to his parents’ native tongue. His love for sports started at an early age and motivated Yordan to teach himself Bulgarian.
Although English and Bulgarian came somewhat quickly to Yordan at a young age, gymnastics was a significantly longer time commitment. His exceptionality in the gym came with dedicated hours of practice as well — in fact, it came from hours in the gym each day. And much of the rigor is thanks to his longtime coach: his father.
“Everyday, gymnastics was with my dad,” Yordan says. “Everything I know is because of him — he taught me everything.”
Both of Yordan’s parents were also gymnasts, with Dimitri serving on the Bulgarian National team and his wife competing as a gymnast during her childhood and then subsequently going on to become a professional rock climber.
While Yordan first got involved in gymnastics because of his parents, he never felt the pressure from them to continue the sport. In the beginning, Yordan would go to the gym because both of his parents worked there, prompting him to try the sport out. Yordan’s parents wouldn’t have to pay for gymnastics lessons if Dimitri taught their son, relieving financial constraints brought on by recently immigrating to America. And in 2002, Dimitri started to rigorously train Yordan in the Redwood Empire Gymnastics gym in Petaluma, California.
Although the end goal for Yordan, and his father, wasn’t necessarily to go on to national and international competitions, the goal rapidly changed after Yordan began to show signs of vast ability and strength. Dimitri, realizing that Yordan was something special and clearly had talent that couldn’t be overlooked, decided to start teaching his son the inner workings of the sport – one that was such an integral part of the family’s life.
“I started getting scared, and more scared, because after seeing him practice, I realized Yordan was going to be very good one day,” Dimitri says. “And that’s how we started.”
Dimitri had many immigrant friends that were gymnastics coaches but did not have children of their own to coach. So in many ways, training Yordan in gymnastics was entering unexplored territory. Dimitri didn’t have other people’s experiences to go off of, but rather, he had to coach Yordan in whatever fashion he felt was right. And it soon became apparent that with rigorous training, Yordan might one day be ready to compete for the Bulgarian National Team, given his dual citizenship. In fact, Yordan told his dad that if he ended up competing for a national team, he wanted to compete for Bulgaria, his true home country, rather than America, the country of his upbringing.
Dimitri best explains the process of coaching his own son in the words of one of his longtime friends: “It’s three times harder and 10 times the pleasure.”
The pleasure of learning from a parent also comes with more pressure to maintain the distinction between gymnastics and life outside the gym. Four hours each day, Yordan would be training in the gym with his father, leaving little time for anything else. Eventually, Dimitri gave Yordan an ultimatum: if Yordan wanted to get serious about the sport, he’d have to work 150 percent in the gym, give everything he had and put in more work than everyone else – no excuses allowed. Yordan would have to balance his schoolwork with gymnastics and not miss any day of either part of his life.
“It’s not easy — it’s never easy — because your dad is your coach,” Yordan says. “But as hard as it was at times, the results and accomplishments — it was always a way better feeling.”
It was a juggling act indeed. Yordan would come back from practice at 9 p.m. each night, eat dinner and then work for a little bit. Dimitri would wake Yordan up early the following morning to do a little more school work, and the same routine would repeat itself all over again day after day.
“In the gym, it was all about gymnastics. Once we got home, my dad and I didn’t talk about gymnastics because there’s got to be a line — you can’t talk about gymnastics 24/7.”
As the training continued and Yordan’s talent progressed, Dimitri sent one of his friends, who helped select athletes to the Bulgarian national team, videos of Yordan’s gymnastics talents. The videos sparked interest, and for the following few summers, Yordan spent a couple of weeks training with coaches in Bulgaria. In 2011, he was finally selected to be a part of the national team.
“It’s not easy — it’s never easy — because your dad is your coach. But as hard as it was at times, the results and accomplishments — it was always a way better feeling.”
After getting a taste of what it’s like to be on a national team, Yordan set his sights on the upcoming 2016 Olympics. With Rio on his mind, Yordan proposed to his parents to take a year off after high school to train. But his parents put their foot down, saying that Yordan would have to apply for college and go immediately after finishing high school. This angered Yordan because after having already attended the European championships and three world championships, it would be a dream come true to attend the Olympics.
Nonetheless, Yordan listened to his parents and ended up narrowing down his college choices to two schools in California: Stanford and UC Berkeley. After talking to Cal head coach Brett McClure, Yordan got into the car and told Dimitri, “Dad, I want to be a Berkeley student.” And that was that.
In 2015, Yordan began practicing specifically for the 2016 Olympics, taking the fall semester off to train twice a day. He ended up being just a point shy of qualifying for the Bulgarian National Team.
“It was a really good experience,” Yordan says. “It changed me as an athlete. Since I was so close the first time, it gives me a lot of hope for the next Olympics.”
Despite not making it to the Rio Olympics, Yordan’s parents are just as supportive as ever. Today, both of Yordan’s parents are there in the Haas Pavilion stands, supporting their son at every home meet. During every winter break, Yordan comes to the Novato Gymnastics Center, in Novato, California, where his parents teach a club team called Top Squad Gymnastics. There, Yordan mentors the younger gymnasts who look up to him as a role model.
Even though Yordan doesn’t train with his father anymore, Dimitri’s one piece of advice still resonates with Yordan as he competes for Cal: “Do what you love, and do it every single day. No bad day, no wrong day.”
And to this day, Yordan abides by his dad’s words. The little boy at the back of the classroom has now become one of the top gymnasts in America, while simultaneously being a force to be reckoned with in Bulgaria. The kid who was once too afraid to speak in class now has no problem letting his actions do all the talking.
Avanti Mehrotra covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected]