© John Cheng

By John Powers

Eddie Penev was a teenager when his original homeland came calling. Would he be interested in representing Bulgaria in gymnastics? Penev was born in Sofia, after all, and knew the language. His parents Yulia and Marian had competed for the national team. And their son appeared to have international ability. “At the time, it was a great opportunity because I wasn’t quite in the race for the U.S. team,” Penev says.

Had he maintained his Bulgarian connection through college and beyond, the road to Rio and this summer’s Olympics would have been straighter and simpler. “Bulgaria would have been much easier but I wanted to be affiliated with the U.S.,” says Penev, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y. and was a three-time national champion for Stanford. “I’m an American. I never wanted the easy way. Never in school, never in gymnastics. It’s not about that for me.”

That’s why after having made the U.S. national team he pushed his rehab into fast-forward after tearing an ACL at the Pan American Championships in 2014 and made it back for last year’s nationals. This weekend at the Pacific Rim Championships presented by Hershey’s in Everett, Wash., Penev already has a team gold around his neck and a good chance at two more in tonight’s event finals on floor and vault.

“I feel just as experienced as any one of these guys,” says the 25-year-old Penev. “I’ve done the World Championships. I have shown my worth to this team, no matter how I went about doing it. I’ve been on that stage, so I know.”

He’d barely turned 17 when he competed for Bulgaria at the 2007 World Championships in Stuttgart. Penev was back in 2010 in Rotterdam, where he placed sixth on floor, and in 2011 in Tokyo. By then, though, he was in college and ready for a dual citizen’s decision based on what Penev wanted out of gymnastics.

“They’re totally different systems,” he says. “Bulgaria doesn’t have as many athletes to put a whole team together so there’s more of a focus on the individual. Whereas with Team USA, it’s all about Team USA and I love that. You’re part of something bigger than yourself, and it’s a great thing to experience.”

So Penev asked the Bulgarian federation for a release. “I approached them and told them that this is what I want and they were willing to let me go and compete for the U.S.,” he says. “The federations talked to one another and came to an agreement. It was a pretty smooth and easy transition and I was very happy about that.”

Thus, the productive diversion on the road to Rio. Bulgaria didn’t qualify a team for the Olympics but the U.S. did, with almost all of the athletes who competed in London bidding for a return ticket to the Games. “It’s amazing that all these guys have been sticking around because they really push you,” says Penev, who was an alternate on the 2013 world team. “When you look around it’s, Wow!, I’m part of something huge right here.”