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Anelia Ralenkova
(rhythmic gymnastics) Anelia Ralenkova

Born December 25, 1963, Anelia Ralenkova became one of Bulgaria's most distinctive rhythmic gymnasts. She led the Bulgarian contingent from 1981 until 1984, winning an incredible 10 gold medals in World and European Championship competition.

A native of Sofia, Ralenkova rose to prominence in her first major international event. At the 1981 World Championships, she won the all-around title, and followed that up with a gold (clubs), two silvers (rope, hoop), and a bronze (ribbon) in apparatus finals. More importantly, she distinguished herself with cutting-edge difficulty and inimitable style.

The 1982 European Championships were just as successful for Ralenkova, who placed first in the all-around and with rope and hoop, and second with clubs. But at the 1983 World Championships, Ralenkova would fumble with ribbon and be defeated by upstart teammate Diliana Gueorguieva. Ralenkova shared the silver medal with other teammate Lilia Ignatova and Soviet star Galina Beloglazova. Ralenkova won a collection of medals in event finals but was just edged out of every title except hoop (she also earned bronze for ball, clubs, and ribbon). Especially disappointing was her loss with clubs. Her quick, intricate routine was performed spectacularly until the final catch, when the tiniest of blunders put her in a tie for third.

Ralenkova tied Soviet Galina Beloglazova for the all-around title at the 1984 European Championships, a result she strongly contested. The outspoken Ralenkova remarked, "There is no longer competition between gymnasts, only competition between judges." She finished the competition with golds for hoop, ball, and clubs and a bronze for ribbon -- and an air of dissatisfaction. The Eastern-bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics meant that Ralenkova wouldn't get her rematch with Gueorguieva, and the former world champion retired later that year, at the age of 21.

Not a single routine of Ralenkova's can be described as unmemorable. She is most associated with her passionate 1981 ribbon routine to Ravel's Bolero and her slinky 1982 ball performance to Gershwin's Summertime, but two of her 1983 routines - a fast-moving rock 'n' roll clubs and a ball tango to Jealousy - incited boisterous cheers at the World Championships is Strasbourg, France. A highly skilled interpreter of music, Ralenkova was also an excellent technician. But her gift to gymnastics is indeed her unique style, which brought to rhythmic a bolder, more modern edge.

In 1990, the U.S. Gymnastics Federation invited Ralenkova to do clinics, workshops, and sports promotions in a 35-city tour across the U.S. The Bulgarian master decided to stay, opening Anelia's Rhythmic Academy in Remond, Washington, in 1991. Ralenkova is very active in the US gymnastics scene, where she believes a rhythmic program will one day flourish.

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