Elena, Tatiana, and Ecaterina are some of the most common names in women’s gymnastics. In nearly every case it is merely a coincidence that gymnasts such as Elena Mukhina and Elena Eremina share the same first name. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if there was a gymnast who generated a signifiant amount of fame for herself, and through her fame convinced a set of parents to name their daughter after that gymnast, and then that child went on to become a famous gymnast herself?
Believe it or not, this has actually happened on two different occasions in high-level gymnastics. The first example occurring in the Bulgarian program which produced two well known gymnasts by the name of “Silvia.”
This story starts with a gymnast by the name of Maya Blagoeva who was a staple of the Bulgarian program in the early 1970s. Blagoeva had competed in every major competition from 1970 to 1975. On numerous occasions she had been the highest scoring Bulgarian gymnast in attendance. When Blagoeva’s time as a gymnast came to an end, it would be her young training partner Silvia Topalova who would take the reins of the Bulgarian gymnastics program.
Like Maya Blagoeva, Silvia Topalova made her debut at the World Championships at the age of 14. Maya Blagoeva had such an affection for her young training partner that in 1976 she named her daughter after Silvia Topalova. At the time Topalova was only 12 years old and hadn’t yet appeared in a major competition at the senior level.
Maya Blagoeva’s daughter would compete under the name “Silvia Mitova.” She became a 1992 Olympian and can be classified as a fan favorite. The daughter of an Olympian from the 1970s, named after an Olympian from the 1980s, and a 1990s Olympian herself, Silvia easily qualifies as an example of gymnastics royalty.
The second instance of a gymnast being named after another high-level gymnast occurred in the Romanian program. And of course, the gymnasts in question were named “Nadia.” According to Gymnastic Greats, when Nadia Hatagan was born in 1979 the parents couldn’t decide on a name. Ironically, Hatagan’s mother wanted to name the child “Silvia” while her father disagreed. Eventually it was decided to name her “Nadia” as a compromise solution. At the time it was a popular naming trend due to Nadia Comaneci’s recent success at the 1976 Olympics. The family reportedly joked that one day she could become a gymnast when they decided on the name.
Side note: There have been two Romanians named “Silvia.” Silvia Zarzu and Silvia Stroescu. Furthermore, Bulgaria has a Nadia of its own, Nadia Chatarova. She was teammates with Silvia Mitova’s mother at the 1974 World Championships, competed against Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics, and appeared in competition alongside Silvia Toplaova in 1978.
It is a daunting task for any Romanian gymnast to be compared to Comaneci and receive the “next Nadia” moniker. In the case of Hatagan, it took on a more literal meaning and made her stand out in a Romanian lineup regardless of how many medals she won. Hatagan would rise to become a strong supporting cast member of the Romanian program during the 1990s. She won two gold medals at the World Championships.
There have been two pairings of one gymnast being named after another. Of the four gymnasts involved, all of them were standouts in their respective eras. Each of them has at least three appearances in the World Championships and/or Olympics. All four gymnasts appeared in an Event Finals. Of the four, all except Hatagan competed in an Olympic Games, while all except Topalova won medals at the European Championships and/or World Championships.
Remarkably, all four gymnasts had strong resumes. Another chilling aspect is both combinations occurred at roughly the same time. Comaneci (1961) and Topalova (1964) were born three years apart from each other. So were Mitova (1976) and Hatagan (1979). The similarities are surprising, but is it surprising that we have seen two high-profile cases of this phenomenon?
As Blagoeva and Topalova demonstrate, the elite gymnastics community is rather small. It is not unusual for gymnastics families to be aquatinted with one another. Nor is it uncommon for parents to take naming inspirations from family friends. While researching this article I stumbled across a photo of Topalova’s daughter with McKayla Maroney. The photo demonstrates the surprisingly vast social networks of elite level gymnastics. Topalova’s 1980 Olympic teammate was Galina Marinova, the coach of McKayla Maroney. Thus explaining how the photo likely came about.
In the case of Hatagan and Comaneci, if a parent has enough interest in gymnastics to name their child after a gymnast, they have a demonstrated interest in the sport itself. Thus they are more likely to enroll their child in a gymnastics class. In all likelihood, Nadia and Silvia are only the tip of the iceberg and there are probably numerous other examples in gymnastics history. But I like the Nadia and Silvia examples because at face value they are the same phenomena, but occurred under very different circumstances.