They don't smoke and they're not delinquents. They are awarded internationally, but disregarded in their own nation. They don't like the term "extreme sports". Team-Disaster is Bulgaria's only inline vert skate club, and club president Marco Jara's goal is to make the sport recognised and understood in the country.
In 2002, he, along with Ivan Rusev, Anton Gigov and nine others of different ages and backgrounds each donated 10 leva to cover lawyer's fees: they were going to form an inline skate club - officially, an association, as clubs do not exist in Bulgaria, Marco points out - and do it right. They decided on the name Disaster, and in early 2003, became a Government-registered, independent, self-funded, non-profit organisation.
Now, the club has 24 hardcore members. Technically, there is a Team-Disaster and an AISA Disaster. Team-Disaster is made up of Nikolai Naidenov, Kiril Trayanov and Pavel Mitrenga. They're "the three best inline skaters in Bulgaria - you can actually say in the whole Balkans", says Jara, "because there's no other team like us". AISA Disaster covers the club as a whole.
Jara started skating back in 1996-97, at what he calls a late age to begin. The basis was there, though, because he used to ice skate as a child, and really enjoyed the sensation. Born in Valparaiso, Chile, Jara's family moved to Sydney, Australia, when he was nine. It was there that he grew up and what he considers his hometown. In 1999, when he was living in Canberra, work brought him to Sofia for a contract project. He had brought his skates with him, and formed friendships with some of the other inline skaters. They would skate in Zona B-5 and in the Park of the Soviet Army. These are the only two verts in the city, and they're not even regulation size.
Well, he returned in 2001, and the same guys were still skating at the same places. "We all decided that we needed something - and we didn't know what that something was. We decided we needed a club. We wanted to push the sport. Nobody was doing anything for us." And so the idea for Disaster was born. "It was a democratically built club," he says.
The same year the club was becoming official, in 2002, he and his now-wife - a Bulgarian - married. They decided to remain in Bulgaria because of her family here, and because Jara had developed strong friendships here. "I have good friends that I love very much, and I would have been sad to leave. I don't want to leave!" He says that when he and his wife were back in Australia three years ago, he was missing Bulgaria the whole time.
Asked how it is living on a continent different from that of his family, he says he has been travelling for a while, so "they're used to me not being home that much. I communicate via the internet. I have a life here. My previous life has disappeared". He does have some good friends in Australia, but, like him, they also have their own families now. "They do have better weather, though," he smiles.
Having spent significant time in various European, South American and the United States locations, Jara has seen sufficient to know what he likes, where he feels best. "This is one of the reasons I'm here, because I liked Europe (better than the US). I really enjoy Europe - I like the democracy of Europe." Why? That's a hard question, he says. "In some ways, Bulgarians don't really know how liberal Bulgaria is," he says, giving examples like people being able to carry a bottle of beer in a park and not getting stopped by the police, or dressing in non-traditional fashions.
"Unless you've lived in different societies, you don't really understand what liberalism is about. Anglo-Saxon societies are really `liberal' with quotation marks. We have a lot of rules. We have freedom, but we have rules. Is this a good thing? I feel very safe in Australia, I know how things are going to work," as compared with paying a water bill in Bulgaria, "but I like this" about Bulgaria. "Every day's an adventure."
In addition, here, what Marco does with Disaster has a purpose, an influence in people's lives. He says that while it might sound "selfish", he appreciates being useful here. "In Canberra, there's no need for a person like me. I come from a modern city where there are five skate parks, each worth about half a million (Australian) dollars, and it's probably the most boring city in the world. Someone (in Australia) who has a social conscious to do something for society through this sport wouldn't make any difference. Here, I make a difference for this sport."
Inline vert skating - done on a half-pipe (aka vert) usually at least eight feet tall, with steep sides that become vertical at the top - is not very common in this country. In general, Bulgarian society doesn't even know alternative sports exist. Jara says that people "have no idea that outside Bulgaria, you can actually make money off of this. They think they're little things for kids. And this is what we want to change".
Also, as in other cultures, there is the belief that alternative sports spawn delinquency. They deal with this perception not only from those unaware of what inline skating actually is, but also from those of younger generations. "Just to give you an example," he said, "if we go to practise in the park, people will ask us for drugs. But, you can't do athletic activities if you do drugs, or smoke, or drink heavily. It's just impossible".
Surprisingly, yet good, of the 24 Disaster members, only one smokes cigarettes. "We don't tolerate it, basically," Jara says. The great lungpower needed for their sport is another contributing factor.
If someone wants to join the team, the most important thing is to have a visible passion for inline skating, he says. And Jara or another will approach the candidate: there are no try-outs. The other is that s/he has to be at a certain level of skating - they don't take novices. The third thing is attitude. "Basically, we don't want egomaniacs in the club. What we're after is creating really good skaters, regardless of gender or age. We are really serious about it."
In addition, a major defining principle of the group is to promote the sport in Bulgaria. They want to build facilities in Bulgaria that don't exist. He gives the example of Montana, in north-western Bulgaria. The city, in particular the mayor, wanted a skate park built with a regulation-size half-pipe, "a real big monster" as Jara put it, costing 60 to 70 000 leva. Before it was completed in October 2005, there was no place in the entire country to train properly for competitions. Sofia, he says, is completely opposed to the idea of building such a vert and won't even talk to the team.
But, because of the vert in Montana, the three Team-Disaster guys spent summer 2006 there, practising every day, all day. And as a result of its new half-pipe, Montana was chosen as the venue for the ASA European Amateur Vert Championships, held on August 12-13 2006. It was the first time Bulgaria had hosted a major international skate competition.
The top five placeholders won the opportunity to travel to Dallas, Texas, for a world competition on October 27-29. Disaster saw success: Nikolai Naidenov came in first; Kiril Trayanov, second; Pavel Mitrenga, third; and Nikolai Borisov, fifth.
At the LG Action Sports World Championships in Dallas, the guys again hit it big. Naidenov took second overall in the Inline Amateur Vert Finals, followed by Trayanov in fourth and Mitrenga in eighth. The top five amateur competitors don't get prize money; they get something even better: the title of professional. As professionals, Naidenov and Trayanov are able to compete internationally in pro circuits. Jara's face shows his pride in them.
From here, Jara's goal is to create a professional all-girl team. Currently, there are about 10 girls in the club, and Jara sees potential. "We really want to train three to be really good. This is what we do - we find people with talent, with the attitude, and we bring them into the club and train them." Equal opportunity, he says.
Also, they want to push some of the other amateurs to become international professionals, with a goal of at least five. And for the guys that become pro, they want to make them into the top-10 best inline skaters in the world.
Proper facilities locally wouldn't hurt, either. Nor would more sponsors. These had been hard to attract, because the sport initially was near unknown in the country. Luckily, BTK, Mountain Dew, Snickers and Vivatel have come forward. Without Vivatel, in fact, the championships in Montana would not have occurred.
The numerous setbacks - lack of money, lack of facilities, municipal orneriness - have only made the club stronger, because they have had to find ways to figure things out. "It's been good, because we've had to become independent," Jara says. "We are very united, and now we have a lot of recognition (worldwide). Now we're receiving invitations."
Next year already foresees competing in Amsterdam, Berlin, London or Manchester, Paris and others. And from there, who knows what can stop them.