Amid the cheerful music that fills the gym, Ilian Alexandrov stands surrounded by young gymnasts working on the balance beam. His friendly smile and enthusiasm are reflected in the cherubic faces eagerly looking to him for direction. It's clear that Alexandrov is happy where he is.

Amid the cheerful music that fills the gym, Ilian Alexandrov stands surrounded by young gymnasts working on the balance beam. His friendly smile and enthusiasm are reflected in the cherubic faces eagerly looking to him for direction. It's clear that Alexandrov is happy where he is.

And Gene and Jill Hill, owners of the Southern Oregon Gymnastics Academy, are pretty thrilled themselves.

"We feel very lucky to have Ilian here," says Gene Hill. "He's very nice and polite, and he's great with the kids. Being a former Olympian, he really knows what they're going through."

Alexandrov is the newest addition to the coaching staff at SOGA in Medford. Born in Pernik, Bulgaria, in 1972, Alexandrov's gymnastics career began when he was 7 years old. After competing at the national level and winning several national championships for Bulgaria, Alexandrov reached his ultimate goal in 1992.

"I always had the dream of going to the Olympics. I had that goal from when I was a kid," he says. "Finally, in 1992, I found my place."

Alexandrov and the men's Bulgarian team had a good showing that year, finishing 10th overall as a team in Barcelona.

In 1993, Alexandrov retired from gymnastics. His daughter Katrin was born and he attended the sports university in Bulgaria. Then in 1998, Alexandrov moved to the U.S.

"A lot of my friends had moved to the states," he says. "Everybody was talking about how it is a great place and so full of opportunity, so I decided to give it a try."

After spending 10 years coaching gymnastics in Vancouver, Wash., Alexandrov was uncertain about what his next step would be.

"I was planning on going back to Bulgaria to be with my family," he says.

A friend had recently taken over the position of president of the Bulgarian gymnastics team, and Alexandrov was a shoo-in for a position on the Olympic coaching staff. But as fate would have it, through a mutual friend, Alexandrov met the Hills and took a trip to Medford to see if he could help the couple find a permanent coach for their young academy. He arrived in Medford on April 28 and accepted the coaching position in May.

"I had to decide if I was going to go back or stay here. I came (to Medford) to help Gene a little bit, and I told him I would help him find a coach. But when I got here, they said 'We're not going to let you go, we're going to steal your car keys,'" he says, jokingly. "So here I am."

When asked if it was a difficult decision, Alexandrov said he was unsure at first.

"I was really confused what to do," he says. "I had to stay here or go back to Bulgaria. I didn't flip a coin, but I decided to stay here. Sometimes when people make a decision they think, maybe I should have taken the other decision, but I'm not like that. I made my decision and I'm glad that I did."

For the Hills, Alexandrov's presence represents stability and security for the academy, which opened three years ago. Neither Gene nor Jill have had any significant gymnastics experience but became involved through their daughters, Jessica, 12, and Lauren, 9. When the Rogue Valley School of Gymnastics, where the girls attended classes, went bankrupt in 2005, the couple felt it was important for their daughters to have an opportunity to continue in gymnastics.

"We got phone calls that the school was closing in two weeks," Jill says. "We started this gym a month later. At first there were seven parents involved, and now it's just down to Gene and I."

The Hills felt so strongly about the positive influence gymnastics had on their daughters that they have devoted a great deal to the gym, which is really a second job for the couple, who own seven McDonald's restaurants around the Rogue Valley.

"Gymnastics has been so positive for the girls," Jill says. "When my oldest was 5, she was so painfully shy she wouldn't make eye contact, and gymnastics has brought her out of her shell. She goes out now and performs in front of a hundred people, and now doing things like giving speeches at school aren't so bad."

Though the summer months tend to be slower because so many kids go on vacation, there is still a lot of work to be done for Alexandrov at SOGA.

"There are a lot of really good girls here," he says, "but a lot of work to do to make it to the next level. They really want to move up. One of the reasons I decided to stay is because I can tell that they are really motivated and hungry to learn. Every kid is different. Every person is different. We are not robots, not machines. I try to find a way to help every girl the best I can."

One young gymnast, Kaitlyn Tosh, 12, had only great things to say about her new coach.

"I like him because he's funny and nice," she says. "He pushes us when we need to be pushed. It's a nice change. And I like his accent."

Rebecca Elston is a freelance writer. Reach her at sports@mailtribune.com