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Fennelly: Tampa teacher Emil Milev heads to sixth Olympics

Olympic silver medalist Emil Milev of Tampa prepares to shoot his specialized Pardini .22 calibre competition pistol at Shooter's World in Tampa. Emil qualified once again for the 2016 Olympics representing Team USA. [Sunday, July 24, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Olympic silver medalist Emil Milev of Tampa prepares to shoot his specialized Pardini .22 calibre competition pistol at Shooter's World in Tampa. Emil qualified once again for the 2016 Olympics representing Team USA. [Sunday, July 24, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published Aug. 11, 2016

"What are we doing today, Coach?"

Those are the children during gym at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Tampa, home of the Hornets. Coach Milev always comes up with something.

But school was down one physical education teacher as classes began this week.

Coach Milev is away on a trip.

He's in Rio de Janeiro.

At the Olympics.

Again.

"The whole community is pulling for him," B.T. Washington principal Jaime Gerding said.

Emil Milev, 48, begins competition in Rio on Friday in 25-meter rapid fire pistol. Do not look for the event in NBC prime time, even if Milev wins a gold medal. He came close once, winning silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Yes, mild-mannered, unassuming Emil Milev, who lives in Brandon with his wife and two children, is at another Olympics. What else is new? That's what he does. He goes to the Olympics like we vote for president. Every four years. This is his sixth Olympics. Did we mention that he's 48?

He's the oldest shooter on the U.S. Olympic team and only the second U.S. shooter to have competed in at least six Olympics.

"Every Olympics has special meaning," Milev said before leaving for Rio.

By the way, he votes for the president, too. Milev, a native of Bulgaria, became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

"It's a privilege," Milev said. "Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, we celebrate those holidays now. Wearing the red, white and blue means a great deal."

Milev has been competing at the Olympics nearly nonstop since Barcelona in 1992. He represented Bulgaria in his first four Games. He made his U.S. Olympics debut in London in 2012.

Milev thought back to Barcelona.

"I still have a picture of myself taken with the Dream Team," he said.

Rapid fire pistol is the 100-meter dash of shooting. Competitors fire .22-caliber pistols with one unsupported hand at targets 25 meters (about 27 yards) away. They have eight seconds to fire at five targets, then six seconds, then four seconds. We're talking rapid, folks.

The sport is about focus and calm.

That's Emil Milev.

"He is a very, very calm man," said Anina, Milev's wife of 25 years. "And he is the best person I know. He never thinks halfheartedly about people."

Milev says he couldn't do this without Anina's support. Or without their children, Alexa, 22, and Philip, 18.

You've probably noticed that you never see Olympic shooters on Wheaties boxes or TV commercials. They don't get rich. Milev is quick to thank USA Shooting, which pays for his ammunition, and Tampa shooting centers, such as Shooters World and Shooting Sports, for giving him free range time. He's grateful for his school and district giving him time off to compete.

"Without everyone behind you, a steady hand means nothing," Milev said.

A steady hand.

"You have to have patience. You have to have persistence. You have to have focus on what you're doing," Milev said.

He was talking about teaching.

"There's a lot to love about teaching. When you can touch a life, it's important. They call me 'Coach.' I like when they ask, 'What are we doing today, Coach?' "

"He's quiet," Gerding said. "A quiet strength. He's very passionate. Our kids deserve for us to be role models. Coach Milev tells the kids stories about what it takes. We all believe — and he does — that if you want something badly enough, and you put effort toward it, kids can truly master anything they want to do."

When the Milev family arrived in this country, they settled in California, then moved to Tampa to reunite with Vladimir Chichkov, Milev's longtime coach.

Milev scrambled for work, dropping off magazines at gas stations, pizza delivery man, anything. He eventually became a substitute teacher. Now he's part of the B.T. Washington family. He loves one thing about America more than anything.

"It's the pride people have in being from here," Milev said. "They walk around believing anything is possible."

He's at the Olympics. Again.

That's what he does.

"There aren't a lot of 48-year-old shooting gold medalists," Milev said, smiling. "But I feel good. I have a chance."

When he returns from Rio, the kids will be waiting. He'll tell them about a faraway place. And about what to do about their dreams.

"You go for it," Milev said. "You have to have a target."