For the vast majority of the young athletes at the 2019 Winter European Youth Olympic Festival in Sarajevo & East Sarajevo, the event is their first opportunity to compete in an Olympic atmosphere.

Not so for Evgenia Radanova and Stefan Georgiev, two Bulgarian athletes turned coaches who competed at the very first Winter EYOF in Aosta, Italy in 1993. The short track speed skater and Alpine skier, respectively, went on to have successful sporting careers that included a combined nine appearances at the Olympic Winter Games and even one Olympiad (Radanova in cycling).

The two remember their time at the inaugural Winter EYOF fondly, both for the competition and the time spent off the field of play.

“For me it was like paradise because everything was very different to our country at that time,” said Radanova, who won bronze in Aosta. “But the main thing I remember was being together with my teammates and having fun. We were in the same uniforms, with the same equipment, and for me it was incredible. It never happened to me before.”

The six-time Olympian and three-time Olympic medallist also enjoyed another aspect of the EYOF: skating against people her own age.

“I was really happy to compete against young skaters, because before then I had always competed against senior skaters and always finished two or three laps behind them,” she said. “To be in Aosta competing against kids my own age – and to beat them – it was crazy for me at that time.”

With the EYOF now in its 14th edition, the event has evolved and grown significantly since Radanova and Georgiev participated at Aosta. The first edition featured 708 athletes from 33 nations competing in five sports. This week in Sarajevo & East Sarajevo, 911 athletes from 46 nations vied for gold in eight sports. The two coaches also see a massive difference in the organizational aspects of the Festival.

“Back then it was almost amateur and now it is like a professional event. It’s completely different,” said Georgiev, who went on to compete at Nagano 1988, Salt Lake City 2002, Torino 2006 and Vancouver 2010. “Now our team travels in its own transportation, the ski preparation is perfect. In Aosta, my coach prepared my skis in Bulgaria and brought them directly to the slopes – it didn’t matter what the forecast or temperature was. It was a completely different story, but it was fun.”

Having cut their teeth at a Winter EYOF just like their students, albeit 26 years earlier, Radanova and Georgiev believe the experience helps them understand their young charges better, which in turn enables them to find ways to keep motivational levels up.

“When I look in their eyes I can see the fear, the stress. I can feel exactly what they feel,” said Radanova, who started working with her athletes six years ago when they were just 8 years old. “I tell my athletes to believe in themselves. When I started out, I didn’t believe in myself. But with every small step I knew that I could go even further forward. Step by step everything is possible.”

Bulgaria has yet to win a medal in Sarajevo & East Sarajevo, and despite disappointing performances in both Alpine skiing and short track for their athletes, Radanova and Georgiev say that just being here will spur their athletes on to greater things in the future.

“For my team, mentally, they perhaps are not there yet. But they saw now what is needed and I hope it will be a step for them to the next level,” said Georgiev. “And for some athletes, it’s best just to let them have fun and not to push them because sometimes they burn out. Let them enjoy being with other young people from different sports.

“This is also a kind of education, a step to the future. It doesn’t have to always be 100 percent about winning. Some athletes are ready, like those from some of the top countries, but others are not. And this is another positive side of the EYOF.”