Тhe endless white road

From Peter Popangelov-Senior

What will be your fate, if you are only 2 years and 10 months old and you are carried up in the mountain, at an altitude of 2,389 meters, in mid winter?… Is this an adventure or the dream of a father willing to make his son a great skier in spite of all difficulties and hardships?…

…In the coldest of times, in blizzards and heavy snow, tough men of the mountain climb along the trail to Musala chalet. The head of a two-year-old shows from one of the backpacks…

This is how the story about the most successful sports tandem in the history of the Bulgarian skiing begins… The skiers from the mountain town of Samokov, were heading to their winter camp, led by Peter Popangelov Sr. The child inside that backpack was his son – Pepi. Little Pepi is the future best Bulgarian skier and one of the world’s skiing aces – Peter Popangelov Jr. Years later the Bulgarian streets would go empty, when they showed on TV the world ski championships. Thousands of Bulgarians would wait excitedly the start of their favourite skier. Peter Popangelov would bring a lot of happiness and pride to all Bulgarians, to his ski club in his home-town, to his parents and… of course, to those tough men from Samokov, who saw his first time skiing…

Till that day Popangelov Jr. is a phenomenon in the history of Bulgarian skiing. He is an heir to two dignified Bulgarian families. The history of the Popangelov family goes way back to the early 19th century in the village of Yassa-Koriya, present-day Ravnogor, in the Rodope Mountains. Alongside with the towns of Bratsigovo, Peshtera and Batak, it is one of the springs of the heroic April Uprising in 1876 for the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire. One of the heroes of the April Uprising is Priest Angel Sandakchiev – chairman of the revolutionary committee in the village of Yassa-Koriya and member of the military committee of the Bratsigovo revolutionary center. Priest Angel (Pop Angel) is the great grandfather of Popangelovs and he gave the name to the whole family – POPANGELOVI.

After the smash of the April Uprising and the horrific atrocities on the part of the Turkish army, Pop Angel was detained and tortured. Later, together with other participants in the uprising, he was sent into exile to the Cretes Island, where he died. His monument was placed alongside the memorials of all heroes of the April Uprising in the town of Bratsigovo, by the grateful generations to come.

His son Peter inherited the revolutionary traditions by his father and joined the new Bulgarian army, founded after the Liberation of Bulgaria and he was promoted to lieutenant. He took part in the 22nd infantry regiment in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913. He was awarded valour medals and eulogy. The family of the great grandfather Peter arrived to the town of Samokov in 1904. One of his sons Ivan Popangelov married one Nevena Belstoyneva in 1931. She was the daughter of the painter and iconographer Mihail Belstoynev. The family was influenced by the national revival spirit of the iconographic school of Samokov. Mihail Belstoynev, and after him his son – the distinguished painter and restorer Georgi Belstoynev, are the latest representatives of the famous iconographic school. He and his brother Hristo Belstoynev are among the founders of the organized ski movement in Samokov. On 11 October 1931, they founded Rila skier ski club.

Peter Ivanov Popangelov and his son Peter Petrov Popangelov are worthy heirs to their ancestors. It is exactly the name of Popangelov Sr. that is related to the history of skiing in Samokov. Supporting the Samokov skiing tradition, he was enamoured by ski as a young boy. His first encounter with the sliding boards dates back to the mid 1930s, not on ski, but in the wooden shoes of his granny. At this time, there was nothing like special ski equipment and clothing. The skis of the first skiers were made of folded barrel boards, and the ski shoes were any ordinary shoes, tied up by belts. However, the opening of the Rido run in Samokov gathered the more advanced skiers in the town. During the holidays, many people came to this place to ski a little and relax. The first skiers, who brought sports glory to the town, grew on these runs. It was here that Peter Popangelov Sr. was often carried away by the first ski masters. This is the first true school for his development as a future skier. His first new “ski” were made of beech and were 70 to 80 cm long.

The best Bulgarian ski craftsman is the carpenter Slave Stoilkov. For years on end the brand Slave – Samokov was a symbol of high quality ski in Bulgaria. Years later Popangelov Sr. met the famous craftsman. Shortly after Christmas, Peter got money to buy ski and visited Slave. They picked up the best ski, but it turned out that the money was not enough. The craftsman patted him on the shoulder and told him that he would give him the ski if Peter promised to become a great skier. The fate had it for Popangelov Sr. to become one of the best Bulgarian skiers, and his son – the best of all times. This is where the sports carrier of Popangelov Sr. started. He joined the most successful ski teams and was famous as an excellent skier with serious physical preparation.

In those years the family faced a huge tragedy. It was1944. Bulgaria, too, faced, considerable political changes. The power was usurped by the Communist party. In the night of September 27th, 1944 the father of Peter Popangelov Sr. – Ivan Popangelov and his brother Luben Popangelov were detained. They were seen no more. This is a continuation of the brutal political attitude for destruction of the dignified and educated Bulgarians. Years later, after the democratic changes in the country, the people paid tribute to the men and women of Samokov who died in the tragic night of 27 September. All of them were part of the intellectuals and culture figures in the town. Today, at the Black Rock in Borovets, where these people were killed, their heirs have placed a huge cross, and their names have been inscribed in the Bulgarian history.

It was a hard time for the Popangelovs family. In this situation the Peter’s (the father) brothers and sister were growing up and studying. In this situation Popangelov (the father) started his journey through the ski sport. Despite of the high sports achievements in Bulgaria and abroad (the 9-th World Students games in Brashov, Romania – 1951) Popangelov (the father) was not included in the team for the VI-th Olympic games in Oslo, Norway, due to political reasons. This was a serous shock for the young skier, but he continued to participate in contests in Bulgaria and proved his great potential of a skilled skier and won almost all competitions in Bulgaria for the 1952/1953 season. As a result he became an absolute republic champion. He became part of the team for the pre-Olympic season in 1954/1955 for the 7th Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy in 1956 and trained along with the best world skiers. He was happy to learn that he could now go to the countries in Western Europe, which was earlier prohibited. This was the first time the State admitted his success. This was followed by a series of successful participations abroad as well as in Bulgaria. Having graduated the Sports Academy, he became a coach in Samokov. For years he used to be both a coach and a contestant. On 31 January 1959, during a competition in Borovets, he got the news that his son was born – the first journalists who met him at the final, greeting him for the grand triumth, told him about it. Excited, he admitted that he was happy not only because of the victory, but also because he got a son.

In 1971/72 Peter Popangelov Sr. became coach of the Bulgarian Alpine skiing national team. In the history of skiing in this country, he was the most successful coach, who took the Bulgarian skiers to the highest sports peaks. He also organized many national and international ski competitions in Bulgaria. He initiated the building of the first ski lifts and ski runs in Borovets. It was his idea to have a project for the first lift consisting of two big sledges meeting. In 1964, the lift made its first run. National sport newspaper reported: “… the people from Samokov now have a ski lift too.” With time the building of ski lifts in the resort Borovets became a top priority.

In the early 70s, Popangelov Sr. suggested the concept for the Borovets resort, which was to be a Bulgarian and international tourist and sports center”. In this concept he implemented the requirements for competition and tourists ski runs already popular across Europe. All these plans and projects focused on the question of building new runs and on increasing and improving the old ones. The project kicked off in 1967. This brought to the building of the ski runs Martinovi baraki – 2, 3 and 4, which were later connected with the Cherveno zname ski run, forming a ski-run complex. All the runs in Sitnyakovo were completed; a ski complex formed by the runs Yastrebets 1, 2 and 3 was made. Many ski runs and equipment appeared so afterwards. Along with this the Bulgarian skiing gathered strength and became more experienced in organizing international sports events. On 20 December 1980, after successful organization on the part of the top ski figures in Samokov, Popagelov Sr among them, the cabin lift Borovets – Yastrebets, with a total length of 4,700 m was launched. In short, Popangelov Sr. earned tremendous merits for turning Borovets into a world-class winter resort.

Popangelov Sr., took little Pepi, who was only 2 years and 10 months old, to the mountain, for his first encounter with skis. The day was cold and windy. The temperature was -18°C. Little Pepi was crying in the backpack. Everyone feared he might freeze and folded him in thick clothes. The crew took turns in carrying the child. So they reached the cabin. They were all worried about the kid, but he woke up, smiled and later on started running around in the big cabin hall. This was Pepi’s first test of endurance for the skiers’ hard life…

In the first 2 or 3 years, Pepi’s slopes were near the cabin. The gradual formation of Popangelov Jr as a skier begun. Before he was 7, Pepi joined his father in all competitions in Borovets, Pamporovo, Vitosha and Pirin. It was in these winter centers, in various conditions and terrains, he could improve his technical skills constantly. He was only 10, but he knew well all Alpine ski runs in Bulgaria. Little Pepi soon mastered the Alpine skiing and he liked particularly slalom skiing. This contributed to his sports and technical maturing, which was noted by the sports community. National sports newspaper reported: “However young, he amazes with his mastership. This is P. Popangelov Jr.”.

Pepi’s races at the ski platz in Borovets was a real show. For him the races on the “flying boards” was the most-desired kids’ game. He was 5 when he raced as a Vorläufer (preliminary races in competitions). This was when he participated for the first time in traditional kids’ races. Later he became a Vorläufer in all big competitions in Borovets. His first official start was in 1966, competing for the Topolino Cup in Italy, an unofficial world children’s competition. He finished 11th. Pepi grew up in his technical skills and soon drew the attention of experts and coaches. He enjoyed more successes in local and international competitions. He became champion at the National youths competition – Pamporovo. In 1974 he won the Balkan title in the Greek winter center Mont Pillion, although he was much younger than his main competitors. In the Romanian ski center Predela, he won a categorical victory for the Drouzhba Cup.

The following 1975 was even more successful for Pepi. He won competitions in Bulgaria and abroad. He started climbing the world rank-lists. Start newspaper reported: “Popangelov – candidate for all international cups.” His victories brought him 34.95 points accorind to FIS.

The year 1976 was even more successful. At the National Cup competition in Pamporovo, Pepi won a triple combination and became an absolute four-time champion of Bulgaria. He stood out from the rest of his team-players. His results spoke of a remarkable sports shape and all specialists knew that something big in his sports career was ahead of him…

It was the eve of the European Youth Championship in the town of Gällivare, Sweden, 1976. The first Bulgarian ski breakthrough was registered during the competitions: winner in the giant slolom was the Austrian L. Schtock – 168.20 sec, second came Popangelov – 168.59 sec. At the second day of the slalom after dramatic racing, the categorical winner was Popangelov with 94.74 sec, followed by Franz Gruber – 98.99 sec and E. Hirt – 99.01. Popangelov became European champion.

A paradox appeared – a Bulgarian was at the top of the youth’s world skiing elite, and the other Bulgarian contestants (older than him) followed behind. The Swedish press wrote about Pepi’s ranking as the biggest surprise at the European competition in Gällivare.

In a successful series of competitions for Popangelov – Berchtesgaden on 9 January 1977, where he finished 10th, and in Kitzbuehel (16th place) – he continued his climb in the world rank-list. In 1977, in Kranska gora, Pepi became Youth European championship for a second time. The senior coach of the Swedish national team and a personal mentor to Stenmark, apploaded Pepi’s races and said he was “the best youth slalom skier in the world”. In March 1977, he finished first at the European competition for Borovets Cup. In Folgarida, Italy he again achieved an excruciating victory. The final ranking for the European Cup was defined – one the thrilling sensations in Alpine skiing in 1977:

1. P. Popangelov – BG – 115 points

2. Zononer – I – 93 points

3. Jean-Luc Fournier – SH – 91 points

Pepi was only 18…

A Bulgarian gained positions among the world Alpine ski aces. But to achieve this, he had walked a 16-year-long way. This is how it all began – P. Popangelov Jr.’s successful sports career; his entrance among the Apline elite and the attack of the white sport’s highest achievments.

His name would be mentioned together with the names of the greatest skiers of all times – Ingemar Stenmark, Gustav Thöni, P. Gross, Nøkler, K. Neureuter, L. David, A. Vetzel, the brothers Steve and Phil Mer, Luti, Krijay and others. All of them, in severe competition for the world cup, in a fight for seconds, in dramatic and adrenaline-fueled competitions were to bring many emotional moments to their fans. Competitors during the competitions, today all these ski stars are friends in life.

Pepi’s fans in Europe called him “Poppy”. And when on 7 November 1985, at the Hintertux Glacier, Pepi fell and bumped into the only plastic non-breaking pillar at the ski run, tearing his spleen, the fans from across the world sent him thousands of letters and postcards, to get better. Upon leaving the hospital in in Swatz, where they removed his spleen, Dr. Primarium Magreiter refused to take his fee (about 25 000 Austrian schillings) as a sign of respect to what Pepi had achieved in the ski sport.

Two months later he was at the start in Heinlein, Austria and finished second. Pepi’s participation in the slalom came as a surprise to everyone. A series of successful starts followed…

P. Popangelov’s successes increased the interest in skiing in Bulgaria. A round of the World Cup was held in Borovets. The opening saw an incredible interest. About 20 000 people occupied the platz neat Cherveno zname ski run. This had never happened before in the Rila resort. All managers of the world Alpine ski sport in FIS, along with President Marc Hodler were present at the opening. Among the guests also were the Secretary General Gian Franco Kasper, the father of the World Cup – Serge Lang, the greatest coaches and world ski specialists. Representatives of the biggest companies from the skiing industry were present too. This was the first time skiing enjoyed such a tremendous interest and for sure the merits were for the ski tandem Popangelovi.

For special merits related to his home town of Samokov Peter Popangelov Jr was awarded twice the title Honorary citizen of Samokov.

On 7 January 2005, the Municipal Council of Samokov renamed one of the ski runs in Borovets – Yastrebets 2 – to POPANGELOV.

On February 12, 2009, he was awarded the highest Bulgarian state order Stara planina, 1st degree, for his tremendous contribution to the sport’s development.

He was announced the best Alpine skier for the 20th century.

When we draw the line, we see the sports achievements of P. Popangelov Jr.:

• His first considerable victories are:

– The European youth slalom champion in 1976, Gällivare, Sweden and second position in the giant slolom

– European youth slalom champion in 1977 in Kranska gora, Slovenia.

• European cup in Alpine skiing in 1977

• Popangelov Jr. achieved his greatest success in the competitions from the World Cup in Alpine ski. Peter Popangelov Jr. participated in the competitions for the World Cup for 11 years, from 1977 to 1988. During these years he gained a total of 482 points for this Cup – Giant Slalom (G) – 11 p. and Slalom – 455 p., as well as two 4th places in the slalom in the final ranking in 1979 and 1984.

• At two Winter Olympics in Lake Placid – USA, 1980 and Saraevo – 1984 he finished 6th in the slalom.

• World student slalom champion at three University Olympics: in 1981 in Spain, in 1983 – in Bulgaria and in 1987 – in the Czech Republic.

• Twenty-seven international victories in competitions in the FIS calendar.

• Many times a Balkan slalom and giant slalom champion for men and youths

• Republican champion – 26 times in all Alpine disciplines.

• He won 6 times the most popular cup in Bulgaria – Otechestven Front newspaper.

• He won many times the Cup of Bulgaria.