The statutory warning on cigarette packs that smoking is injurious to health doesn’t bother Maria Grozdeva. The Bulgarian pistol shooter, winner of five Olympic medals, two of them gold, sometimes prefers to smoke after training.
Leading such a lifestyle and excelling at the world level --- that too in four consecutive Olympic Games --- requires extraordinary talent. But Maria, who is here to compete in the ISSF World Cup, is modest. She only believes in hard work.
“When I am shooting at the ranges, I just shut my mind to the outside world. The focus is entirely on training. It’s the same in competition. I am not thinking of family or job, I only think of the sport.”
An illustrious career spanning more than two decades doesn’t mean she is confined to shooting ranges. In fact, she parties hard on weekends. “There is life beyond sports. And I go out and enjoy,” she said.
At 44, she is still going strong, defying age. Besides a busy competitive schedule, she is also president of the Bulgarian Shooting Union. She spends two hours in the gym and often goes hiking. “When I take a break from shooting, I prefer to spend time in the mountains,” she said.
Her journey in the sporting world began when she was 11. Since her father was in the police department, she often accompanied him to the police academy in Sofia, where she got the opportunity to try her hand at shooting.
The champion shooter says it was a lot of fun “holding a weapon and do bang! bang! But she gradually got into competitive sport. At 20, she won her first medal --- a bronze in 10m air pistol at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Four year later, at the Atlanta Olympics, she again won bronze in air pistol.
In 1999, she joined the Bulgarian police department, but her primary job was sports. She also had a short stint in the army. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she won gold in 25m sports pistol. “Being a mother of two, many thought I would give up. Bringing up the kids and training for Olympics was challenging, I managed to cope up with the pressure,” she said.
At 32, she became the first shooter to defend her 25m pistol title and also won bronze in air pistol at 2004 Athens.
During the Beijing Games, her dream of a podium finish was shattered. She finished fifth in 25m sports pistol and 11th in air pistol. Despite the setback, she trained hard to qualify for the London Games. “It was again a bad score that let me down. I was ninth in sports pistol and 24th in air pistol.”
In 2015, Maria narrowly missed a quota place for the Rio Olympics.
Three years back, she was given the added responsibility of heading the Bulgarian Shooting Union, riddled with financial irregularities. “There was corruption in the old setup and the government disbanded the shooting body. Being an Olympic champion, I was nominated to cleanse the system,” she said.
On not making the finals here at the ISSF World Cup, she simply termed it as “not-so-good performance”. In 25m sports pistol qualification, she shot 577 to finish 11th, while in air pistol her score was 369.
Maria still cherishes the dream of excelling in the Olympics. “I have set my sights on 2020 Tokyo.”