Having won gold at the Tokyo Olympics amid the coronavirus pandemic in the summer of 2021, the Bulgarian rhythmic gymnasts known as the "Diamond Girls" are back in Japan to experience some of the things they missed out on during their previous visit.
The team members postponed celebrating their group all-around triumph with residents of their training host city, Murayama in Yamagata Prefecture, as they had to leave Japan shortly after competing due to a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections.
The Diamond Girls, who retired from competition after the Olympics, have finally been able to celebrate in Murayama as part of a 10-day trip at the invitation of the city, which has installed a monument in their honor.
Bulgaria's national rhythmic gymnastics team is traditionally called the "Golden Girls," but the Tokyo Olympic team earned the special "Diamond" moniker for bringing Bulgaria its first group gold medal at an Olympics.
"This trip is aimed at interacting with locals, which we couldn't do in the Olympic year, through a variety of events," the team's captain Simona Dyankova told a press conference Monday at the Japan Olympic Museum in Tokyo.
"Things were rough at that time. We once thought the Olympics would be canceled. Everyone was wearing a mask. We won gold medals at an unordinary Olympics. That's special."
In the run-up to the Olympics, the team held four training camps, called "Rose Camps," in Murayama. The national flower of Bulgaria is a rose, and the flower of Murayama is also a rose.
While training for eight hours a day, Dyankova, Stefani Kiryakova, Madlen Radukanova, Laura Traets and Erika Zafirova took part in cultural exchanges such as "ikebana" flower arrangement, tea ceremony and rose tree planting.
A Diamond Girls fan club was established, with membership growing beyond Murayama to about 400 people across Japan, according to the Bulgarian Embassy in Tokyo.
Originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, the Tokyo Olympics was postponed for roughly one year and mostly held without spectators due to the pandemic.
During a 10-day pre-Olympic camp in 2021, the Diamond Girls could only go back and forth between their accommodation and the training venue without interacting with local people.
"Murayama is a special place for us, and our monument built there makes us really cry," Dyankova said. "We want to teach rhythmic gymnastics to children this time."
The captain also expressed hope for next year's Paris Olympics, saying, "Bulgaria's new team is very strong and has produced results under our head coach. I wish their success in both the group and individual events."