Life is not all about the money; it's about passion and effort, and for me, that's the sport of fencing. Unfortunately, you can't live on passion alone. My first opportunity to start earning a decent salary came in 1999 when I was 23 and just a year out of college. I was offered the post of sports co-ordinator at a private beach club in Dubai. Back home in Bulgaria, I had been at my peak as a member of the national modern pentathlon team, which comprises fencing, horse riding, shooting, swimming and running. I was also teaching and coaching fencing.
But, as you can imagine, 10 years after the collapse of Communism in 1989, Bulgaria was still in a state of transition and could no longer fund sport as before. Fencing was my strongest sport in modern pentathlon - I spent five years earning my bachelor's degree in fencing, in modern pentathlon and in physical education. The government funded my studies completely as I was representing the country in the national team. I'm currently working on a joint masters and PhD in fencing and sport management from the National Sports Academy in Europe, based in Bulgaria. Due to the fact that my bachelor's degree was paid for by the government, the one-year master's degree programme costs me just 1,500 (Dh7,700). I thought that with my education and experience I could go where fencing or modern pentathlon was not developed. I realised I could utilise my skills and mastery of the sport to benefit others in a city like Dubai where I could also earn money.
At first, my employment package was not great but I managed to save and invest in property in Bulgaria. I bought a property, sold that and then bought another which I still own. I know you may think it's odd that a 23-year-old would not blow his money on all the good things Dubai had to offer. But I had spent the previous seven years with the national Bulgarian modern pentathlon team, travelling the world, plus taking part in four European championships. So I had seen and learnt enough to give me some understanding of what life was all about and I realised the importance of having something solid behind me, like the property such as the two-bedroom flat in my hometown of Pazardjik.
I was not attracted to going out socialising and clubbing. I was more interested in developing the sport of fencing and modern pentathlon in the UAE and across the region, as well as earning money to have a better life. I came to Dubai with just three fencing swords, masks and costumes. But within three years I had built up enough passion for the sport among the beach club members that I was able to bring together other fencing enthusiasts and supporters to establish the first organisation in the UAE for fencing, the Dubai Fencing Club (www.dubaifencingclub.com).
We teach fencing using the épée sword, with the end of the blade blunted. However, some club members play with a foil or a sabre. One of my first students was a member of the Gargash family and, to this day, Gargash Enterprises - Mercedes Benz is the club's principle sponsor, for which I'm very grateful, as fencing equipment is not cheap. But it's necessary for first-time students. Start-up costs for fencing equipment and establishing the studio ran Dh154,211.
In 2005, I became sports director of Dubai International Academy, which runs from kindergarten to secondary school. My sister, Maria, who has a bachelor's degree in fencing and modern pentathlon, and is a physical education teacher, also lives here in Dubai and teaches classes at the Dubai Fencing Club to children from seven years of age. But fencing is more than a sport for me; it's the physical form of chess, where you have to anticipate your opponent's moves and foil them, if you'll pardon the pun. The physical side of fencing exercises the body while the mental side stimulates the brain.
I think parents would welcome a club where their kids can mingle with their peers and learn such a brilliant sport which teaches discipline, patience and competitiveness, rather than let them hang around shopping malls and cinemas. As I was building up the fencing club, I attracted a number of Emiratis to the sport, which led to the establishment of the UAE Fencing Federation, and the sport is growing, especially among members of the armed forces.
Another role I have is as development officer for the International Modern Pentathlon Federation in the Middle East. I'm travelling to countries around the region as a consultant, Qatar for example, working on establishing a modern pentathlon organisation that would promote and develop the sport involved. All the other sports of modern pentathlon were here, like horse-riding and running, but fencing was missing. Now we can start developing modern pentathlon throughout the Middle East.
I don't have anything like a five- or 10-year game plan for staying and making money in the UAE. The thing is, I came here to develop the sport and that means being here for the long-term. I enjoy educating people and I believe that education is power. I don't spend much money in Dubai, other than shopping and various living expenses that can average out to Dh6,000 a month, which includes a monthly pension payment of Dh1,652.
The rest I save to invest in property. My advice for other young people is to do the same. All of us expats will go home one day and we need to prepare for the future. But for now, my life is in the UAE. This is a land of opportunity and I believe that most people come here to make money. If you are motivated, show initiative and have something special, a skill or an idea to bring, then you'll find your opportunity to develop it and be a success.
Educating people in sport and a healthy lifestyle, and especially fencing, is my passion and what drives me, though it'll never make me a rich man. The thing is, if you can make money out of your passion, enough to give you a comfortable life, then you have it all. * As told to Fran Healy