The second half of one of he most renowned rhythmic "power duos" of the 1990s, Diana Popova never seemed to resent her table-setting role. As the supporting player to Maria Petrova, Popova quietly built a reputation as a clean, consistent, level-headed athlete who chose to demonstrate both style and substance in her exercises.
Born in Plovdiv on October 12, 1976, Popova, like all of the Bulgarian greats, started training at an early age. Her cool demeanor made her a favorite of coaches, who cultivated her stylishness and deep sense of musicality.
Popova's first top finish came in the 1992 Olympics. Despite two drops of the clubs, the brunette beauty finished 7th in the all-around. A couple of months later she moved up a notch at the World Championships in Brussels, where she also stole a bronze on clubs. But in 1993, the 17-year-old surprised the gymnastics world by retiring, citing exhaustion.
Eschewing the modeling jobs she had been offered, Popova returned to competition in 1994 and proved that she was still as strong as ever with her 8th-place finish at the World Championships. She finished 7th in 1995, and took home 5 medals (including the all-around bronze) at that year's World University Games. A successful season in 1996 included medals at the World Championships and several Grand Prix events. But at the Olympics, a couple of small mistakes in the semifinal round dropped Popova to 11th--and denied her the chance to compete in her second Olympic final.
Even though she never scored a major international title, Diana Popova won herself a legion of dedicated fans who thrilled to her every liquid body wave. She is best know for her stunningly choreographed clubs exercise to Ravel's Bolero, as well as her intense ball to The Four Seasons by Vivaldi-- which included her trademark catch of the apparatus between stomach and thighs while in a backspin.
After her retirement in 1996, Popova married the son of famed Bulgarian coach Julieta Shishmanova. Popova has since relocated to Italy, where she accepted a coaching position with the national team.
Some have alleged that Popova was not given her due by the Bulgarian Federation, instead having been used to further the career of teammate and best friend Petrova. But Diana herself has never supported this opinion. She remains one of the most affectionately remembered gymnasts, the uncommon athlete who showed equal grace on and off the competition floor.