February 10, 2008 / 1:00 AM / in 10 years

Simona Peycheva fighting back from spinal surgery

SOFIA (Reuters) - Simona Peycheva is such a tough character that she passed her driving test despite having a broken foot at the time.

<p>Bulgarian gymnast Simona Peycheva performs during a practice session in Sofia December 21, 2007. REUTERS/Nikolay Doychinov</p>

Small wonder, then, that her preparations for a shot at rhythmic gymnastics gold in the Beijing Olympics have not been derailed by surgery on her spine.

“I’ll have to overcome many difficulties but I‘m ready for that. It’s been my daily routine since I was seven,” the 22-year-old Bulgarian told Reuters.

Peycheva, who won world titles in three disciplines in 2001 and has remained Bulgaria’s most successful gymnast in recent years, underwent surgery on a spinal problem last October but is already back in rigorous training.

“I‘m spending around seven hours in the hall, six days a week,” she said.

The Bulgarian, who weighs 39 kg, thrives on competition and has coped with painful injury before.

She broke her right foot in June 2002 but continued competing after having pain-killing injections. She passed her driving test in August of the same year and won two gold medals (ball and clubs) and silver (rope) at the World Cup in Stuttgart in the November.

She also won bronze for the clubs at the 2003 European Championships in Riesa, Germany.

“It was painful, it was really painful,” Peycheva said. “I was competing for more than a year with this pain, so it seemed like the easiest task in the world to pass my driving test. But I have a passion for driving.”

BEIJING SWANSONG

She underwent foot surgery in November 2003 in Finland. “That surgery saved my career,” she said. “It could have been the end of my career if I didn’t take steps to heal the injury.”

Now, Peycheva is determined to win a medal in Beijing, which will be her swansong.

”The atmosphere of real competition is fantastic,“ she said. ”Nothing compares with the feeling when you step on the carpet and hear the crowd.

“I feel butterflies in my stomach even when I watch some competition on TV. It’s amazing.”

Her back injury thwarted her hopes of another world title in Greece in September of last year.

”It turned into a nightmare two weeks before the world championships in Patras,“ she said. ”It was an excruciating pain as I couldn’t move. I’ve never dealt with such pain.

“They allowed me to compete thanks to pain-killing injections but it wasn’t the perfect competition because I didn’t train for a week before the championships.”

Despite the problems, Peycheva finished fifth in the hoop final and sixth in the rope before going to Germany for her operation.

Her coach Mariela Dukova says Peycheva’s stubborn attitude -- which also helped her to come back from a 10-month ban for using a diuretic and finish sixth at the 2004 Athens Olympics -- has helped her swift recovery.

NEW ROUTINES

“It’s not easy to work with Simona because of her trademark stubbornness,” Dukova said, adding more kindly: “I was delighted with Simona’s attitude after the surgery. It’s her fighting spirit and desire to win which make her a constant threat.”

Bulgaria were long an important force in rhythmic gymnastics with Maria Petrova winning three world all-round titles in the 1990s.

Olympic success, however, has been limited to one team silver, one team bronze and a 1988 individual all-round silver for Adriana Dunavska since the sport was added to the Olympic medals events in 1984.

Peycheva is preparing four new routines for August’s Games and Dukova has high hopes for her charge.

“The Russians are extremely good,” said Dukova. “But I think that Simona can fight for a medal in Beijing.”

It was Dukova who persuaded Peycheva to abandon plans to retire in 2005, when she stopped training for three months.

”She did it so delicately that I couldn’t resist,“ Peycheva said. ”She is such a great psychologist.

“In fact, I am what I am thanks to her. She shaped me as a person and as a competitor.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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