By Angel Krasimirov
SOFIA (Reuters) - For an athlete who has given so much to short track speed skating on and off the ice, Evgenia Radanova deserved a more successful farewell appearance.
Radanova could not reach the final in any of her three events at last weekend's world championships in her native Sofia but she still bowed out of competition as one of Bulgaria's most successful sportspeople.
Now 32, the seven-times European champion plans to channel her talent into nurturing the next generation of winter sports athletes and helping Bulgaria to get back on track after its team left last month's Vancouver Olympics empty-handed.
Radanova was the first Bulgarian to win more than one medal at the Winter Olympics, taking silver and bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002 and another silver in Turin four years later.
"I love skating and I'm still as enthusiastic as I was when I started training nearly 23 years ago but unfortunately it's too risky to carry on," the former world champion told Reuters at the Winter Sports Palace in Sofia.
Short track skating has often been described as roller derby on ice and injuries are rife. Radanova has had her share.
"I still have the desire to compete but after pushing myself mentally and physically beyond my limits following all the injuries I think it's more sensible to stop.
"She is an absolutely incredible competitor, she is the best Bulgarian female athlete," said Bulgarian Olympic Committee (BOC) chairperson Stefka Kostadinova during an emotional farewell ceremony at the weekend.
"Obviously I wanted to go out with a medal in front of the Bulgarian crowd but probably I was too emotional as it was a very special competition for me," Radanova said.
"Right now I'm motivated to share my experience and help kids and young athletes. We have so talented boys and girls but we need to develop them.
"I remember that I didn't have a chance to learn from anyone, only from my own mistakes during my first years in short track skating. It was a very young and an unknown sport in Bulgaria. But it's quite different now."
Radanova and her coach Yulian Angelov said poor facilities were to blame for low training standards and they wanted government intervention to help winter sport get out of the current crisis.
While many doubt that government help will be forthcoming, Radanova remains an optimist.
"I realize that the state is struggling but I don't think we need that much to succeed in short track skating and also I see there are people who have the will to change the situation."
Olympic biathlon champion Ekaterina Dafovska, European biathlon champion Pavlina Filipova and world ice dance champion Albena Denkova have all quit their sports recently, leaving Bulgaria's chances of success more remote.
The BOC said it was not acceptable to fail to win a single medal in Vancouver and Sports Minister Svilen Neykov suggested the state should concentrate on helping only selected sports.
"You see that we don't have facilities to develop all winter sports, so I think it would be more sensible to focus on those we can provide proper conditions for," Neykov said.
Radanova has big plans for the future of Bulgarian short track skating and could get the chance to put them into action.
"She's the one who is the most appropriate to work in the federation," said Mariela Staykova, who became the domestic skating federation's interim chief after Denkova's retirement last year.
Elections will be held later this year to install a new federation chief and Staykova is confident that Radanova could inherit the post.
"I think she's going to have a big influence on the next generations," said Neykov. "There are many ways for her to contribute to Bulgarian sport."
"She is a perfectionist," said coach Angelov. "She always wants to improve, day by day."
Radanova could turn for inspiration to the country's skiing federation who have done much in recent years to improve Bulgaria's status on the Alpine skiing circuit.
The Bulgarian resort of Bansko hosted a women's World Cup race last year and a men's event will take place in 2011.
"We have such unique natural resources that I can predict we can have at least a dozen top-class winter resorts," ski federation chief Tseko Minev said. "We only need a good policy and willingness to add the necessary infrastructure."
Many in Bulgaria, which has been hit by economic crisis, believe the time is not right to spend money on winter sports.
Others believe that the country should tap into the talents of those such as Radanova and Minev to help Bulgaria close the gap on the leading winter sports nations.
In communist times, Bulgaria was keen to host an Olympic Games and some official ambition remains, with the country hoping to stage the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics and already winning support from International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge.
(Editing by Clare Fallon)