When the 2012 Summer Olympics begin in London this July, Tampa Bay area residents will have lots of local athletes to root for: female hurdler Damu Cherry; swimmers Chelsea Nautu, Megan Romano and Robert Margalis; diver Chris Colwill; wrestlers Eric Grajales and Franklin Gomez.
And then there’s Emil Milev.
A Temple Terrace resident and a physical education teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Ybor, Milev, 43, is one of the most skilled marksmen in the world. He has participated in every Summer Olympics save Beijing since the Barcelona games in 1992, winning a silver in Atlanta in 1996. In June, he’ll compete in Olympic shooting trials at Fort Benning, Georgia in the Men’s 25m Rapid Fire Pistol category.
The fact that he’s perhaps less well-known than athletes in more high-profile sports isn’t surprising. Even though shooting competitions have been a staple of every Olympics since the first games in Athens in 1896, few Americans keep track of who wins the gold in men’s rapid fire.
But there’s another reason Milev has been under the radar: If he succeeds in Fort Benning, it will mark his first time as an Olympian with Team USA.
Milev began shooting competitively at the age of 15 in his hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria, a single-party Communist state that was a Soviet satellite until 1991. Although the Olympics are nominally about amateur competition, athletes in the Communist bloc were paid by the state to train on a full-time basis. That was the case for Milev, who competed for Bulgaria in four Olympics.
But life got tougher after Communism ended in 1991. Milev said the first six or seven years after the break were particularly rough. Basic supplies like milk and bread were in short supply, requiring lengthy waits in line. This was also around the time that his daughter was born, and his brother Zlatko was struggling with school. To help him out, Milev began learning about the process of applying for U.S. citizenship to help Zlatko — not, initially, to help himself. He learned about the green card lottery, a process through which the U.S. State Department gives out 55,000 green cards every year to persons from countries less represented in the employment and family-based preference categories.
Soon Emil decided that he too would enter the sweepstakes. Ultimately Zlatko didn’t make it (but did escape Bulgaria, moving to Italy), but Emil did. After spending some time in Tampa during the winter of 2001 with his friend and now coach Sergey Luzov, he and wife Anina fell in love with the region. Upon returning to a “dark, snowing and dirty” Sofia, the couple decided to move to Tampa Bay, and did so in 2004.
But that same year, shooting for Bulgaria in the Athens Olympics, was the only time in his nearly 30-year career that he considered giving it all up.
“It was really dark,” Milev remembers. During the 2000 Olympics (where he missed a bronze medal by .01), he’d realized that his vision suffered in dark lighting. Optometrists never detected anything, but he still struggled when the sun went down, and ended finishing in eighth place in Athens, his worst Olympics performance ever.
That began a searching part of his career, when he wasn’t certain he wanted to keep up the intense work that it takes to maintain his expertise. After participating at an event in Spain in 2007, he thought he was through. Having just begun his teaching gig at Booker T, his enthusiasm for the practice range was ebbing. Now 38, working 10-12 hours a day and helping to raise two children, he felt like maybe it was time to move on. He stopped shooting, not touching a gun for two years. At the same time he became a U.S. citizen, so there was no chance to compete right away for his new home country; international rules require that Olympic athletes refrain from competition for two years before switching from one team to another. Shooting in Beijing was never in the cards. But as time passed, he regained his love for the sport.
He’s been on a roll ever since. Last October he won the Gold at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara. He capped the year off when USA Shooting named him the Pistol Athlete of the Year. The Summer Olympics holds a large number of shooting competitions for both men and women, with 390 slots available in a total of 15 events, five in each of the three major shooting disciplines: rifle, pistol and shotgun.
Championship level shooters don’t wear uniforms, though they have numbers attached to the backs of their shirts. Goggles and ear protection are mandatory, and shooters are allowed to wear a patch over the non-aiming eye.
In Milev’s category, the bulls-eye target is a four-inch circle, and there’s limited time to fire off five shots. When the green light comes on, he must raise his arm from a 45-degree starting position and fire his five shots.
The first series allows those shots to be fired off in 8 seconds, then 6 seconds, and then 4 seconds. There are two series of each type, and a full course of shooting allows for two such stages, or a total of 60 shots. The maximum score is 600.
Because shooting is less physically intense than running, swimming or many of the other sports that the Summer Olympics are noted for, some question the legitimacy of shooting as a sport. Milev laughs when asked about that attitude. “I understand it,” he says. “I even say it to myself sometimes.” Not that he doesn’t have to work out. His exercise routine includes isometric actions with his right shooting arm, what he calls “static” push-ups. He also likes to run, because he says in shooting, “You don’t breathe.” By that he means when he fires off a round, he isn’t breathing, having inhaled air just prior to firing away.
Several characteristics distinguish shooters from other Olympians. One obvious factor is age. Although Milev started out as a teenager, he says that it takes years to develop into a high-caliber marksman, and notes that that the average age of his competitors is in the 30s. One of the most esteemed participants in his specialty of rapid fire, Germany’s Ralf Schumann, is pushing 50.
Milev practices, but not every day. He’s a regular at the Shooting Sports range on North Dale Mabry, and about three or four times a year he makes the drive with his coach to Fort Benning when he wants to practice in the outdoors, to simulate match play.
Milev’s employers at Booker Elementary are fully behind him. Assistant Principal Jamie Whitlow says “Coach,” as he is known on the campus, is a tremendous role model for students at the school, which has made great strides in the past couple of years (getting a C- minus grade last year, up from an F).
Is it difficult when Milev takes time off to train? “With the many challenges we face at Booker,” says Whitlow, “it’s imperative that we pull together as a team.” She says there is another P.E. teacher on campus, so if a substitute can’t fill in for Milev, then Coach Patrick Young handles it on his own.
Milev says that, as a phys ed teacher, he gets to play with youngsters all day long. It’s a pretty good life.
“I’ve been thinking I get paid to go the sea and run on the beach and swim in the sea and have some fun shooting. And now I get paid to play with the kids. It’s cool.”
And it’ll be even cooler this summer if he can make it to London.