Former Bulgarian star now Tulalip athletic director

Tori Torolova talks with Georgetta, 8, and Georgette, 10, Reeves in her office at the Tulalip Boys and Girls Club. Tori, the athletic director, defected from Communist Bulgaria and went to college in Boise, Idaho. - Steve Powell
Tori Torolova talks with Georgetta, 8, and Georgette, 10, Reeves in her office at the Tulalip Boys and Girls Club. Tori, the athletic director, defected from Communist Bulgaria and went to college in Boise, Idaho.
— image credit: Steve Powell

TULALIP – Tori Torolova loves her family, even though she's seen little of them since she defected to the U.S. from Communist Bulgaria 24 years ago.

She hasn't seen her sister since 2001, her mom since 2000 and her brother since 1994.

She saw little of them before that, as she was taken from her home at age 10 and placed in a Sports School so she could focus on playing basketball for that country's national team.

So she gets a little teary-eyed when talking about family. But she gets a huge smile when she talks about her adopted family on the Tulalip Reservation. She was hired there 4 1/2 years ago and is now the athletic director at the Boys and Girls Club. She loves the kids, and they love her.

Bulgaria as a child

Tori grew up in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. In the summers she would go to the countryside with her sister, mom and dad. "I was the baby," she said. At about age 3 she had to get up with the rest of them at 5 a.m. to feed the donkeys, pigs, chickens, rabbits and goats. "It was no vacation. It was hard work," she said in her still-thick Balken accent.

Her grandfather was the unofficial chef of the village so they hosted gatherings, such as marriages or when someone went into the military. "They were huge celebrations," she said.

Tori did not find out she had a brother until she was 13 because he was born in a previous marriage. "We did not discuss divorce" there. "It was old school, hush, hush. People would judge," Tori said. Two other secret issues were government and religion. "We were not allowed to talk about people in government," she said. As for religion, she said Christianity was underground. They didn't get to celebrate Christmas, and it still bothers her that she wasn't baptized until age 22. "Church life was put behind political life," she said.

Her dad was a steel mill supervisor, and the family was provided an 8th floor apartment. "He was always under a lot of stress, uptight," Tori said. "He was the one they blamed everything on." She remembers wages being an issue because workers hadn't received raises for 10-15 years. She said her family didn't get its first TV until she was in about the second grade, and its first car until she was 15. "It was a humble, primitive life," she said.

Tori's life changed at age 10 when some coaches came to visit. She told them she liked basketball over volleyball, and that was it. Tori said it wasn't like the government just came and took her away from her family, but at times it felt like it. "It was with the blessing of the parents, who wanted a better life for their kid," she said. Tori was constantly training. She said it was much more involved than "select" teams today. They would practice three times a day, along with many tournaments. At first she attended a Sports School but when she became a teenager she was on the junior national team. They traveled all over Europe so they had tutors "on location with us. We would never stop. We spent about one week a year with family."

When she was 15, and had grown to about 6-foot-3, she made the women's national team, playing with women 10-15 years older. Tori said one year they spent more time out of the country than in it. She had so many visas it looked like "a cartoon booklet." She started getting paid, "but we didn't talk about it." She also would sell used athletic gear to make extra money. "It helped the family a lot," she said, adding some weeks she made as much as her dad.

Also when she was 15, her dad died of a heart attack. She recalls that day with tears and anger. "It took three hours for the ambulance to get here," she said. "He was a good person. A lot of people forgot that." Tori had thought about quitting basketball to go home, but now "basketball was the only way out." Her mom, a secretary at an airline, "had to fight. She had to survive."

Tori was given only a week to grieve, then went back to work. She said she became a rebel. "I shut down the emotional baggage," she said. From ages 16-18 she was one of the best players on the national team.

They came to the United States and played 27 games in 30 days. They went to places like New York and Chicago and played teams like Notre Dame and Duke. "It was the last time I enjoyed playing for my country," she said.

As they were heading toward the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she was the sixth player. But because of turmoil with some teammates she was removed from the team. The coach, who had tried to be like a dad to her, no longer supported her, she said. "I just stopped believing in him ... and felt used."

After the Olympics, the coach allowed her back on the team, but she was able to "mask nothing," she said. "I had little respect for the coach, but he had no choice but to play me. I was smashing my competition."

The team came to Seattle to participate in the Goodwill Games. After finishing fifth in the Olympics the team won a bronze medal at the Goodwill Games. But the main thing on Tori's mind was she was ready to defect.

Defecting in the U.S.

Tori and another star on the Bulgarian team, Lidiya Varbanova, had been talking about defecting for some time. Tori said her teammate actually was the one who brought it up, but everyone assumed it was her because she was the "black sheep."

In the team picture at the Goodwill Games Tori had a big cell phone to her ear talking to an interpreter about defecting. Some of their teammates must have grumbled about it because the coach took away all of the passports from the players.

But Tori and Lidiya decided to go anyway.

"It happened so fast. We were on a mission to step out and start new," Tori said. With $20 and a backpack they walked off the University of Washington campus where the Goodwill Games were that year

As they were leaving, they were giving High 5's to everyone. "They were cool cats," Tori said of the crowd.

Lidiya and Tori stayed with the interpreter that first night and received phone calls from their Bulgarian coach and teammates. "They were angry at us, saying if we didn't make it back there would be repercussions for family back home," Tori said.

The next day they were treated like rock stars. They were interviewed on CNN and got to meet famous people like Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. "We were surrounded by angels with unconditional love," Tori said, adding they attended some "high end" parties.

But they soon had to "leave the life of the rich and famous," she said. They had hoped to play for the UW, but there was only one scholarship available. Tori and Lidiya wanted to keep playing together. Boise State coach June Daugherty, who later coached at UW and is now at Washington State, reached out to them.

Daugherty said she wanted Tori not only because of her basketball skills, but also because of her courage. "She walked away from communism, which was horrible to her, forcing her to play basketball. I have enormous respect for her," Daugherty said.

Tori said going to Boise was "culture shock. Seattle even looked small to me. We couldn't speak the language." Her new Bronco teammates didn't know what to think. "They looked at us like we were aliens," Tori said. "I don't know if it was because of our height or the clothes we wore."

The rebel in Tori came out when a senior told the freshman to carry her basketballs to the gym. Tori declined, saying, "I'm not your normal freshman." She said playing college ball was "stepping down a level" from where she was in Europe. Daugherty said Tori handled that diva senior with wit and charm. "Tori was one of the top 25 women players in the world" at the time, her coach said.

Tori began to struggle, learning the language and with all of the academic demands. So the rebel in her went to Sun Valley to work as a maid. She wasn't planning to return, until Daugherty went to get her.

"We have a special bond," said Tori, who still helps Daugherty with basketball camps at WSU in the summer. "She never gave up on me."

Tori worked hard on her English and started to enjoy the "homey atmosphere" of Boise. Daugherty said Tori worked as a cook at a Wendy's and learned a lot of English there.

"I hated it there," Tori said. "I was one of the main burger flippers, and I couldn't even spell pickles," she said, laughing.

The BSU women's basketball team flourished. "Lidiya took us to the top" of the Big Sky Conference, Tori said of her country mate, who made BSU's Hall of Fame. The team went 28-3 one year and was ranked as high as 13th in the nation. They lost, however, in the first round of the NCAA tournament to the UW, whom they had beaten earlier that season.

Tori was a three-year starter, and some of her teammates went on to play in the WNBA. Daugherty said that was her best team in 30 years of coaching.

The coach also said Tori plays down her importance to the team. Daugherty said Tori was like having a coach on the court. "You only had to teach her once. She has an extremely high I.Q.," Daugherty said. The coach said Tori was a great passer, and she knew when her teammates were supposed to get the ball. "She broke a few kids' noses passing the ball so hard to where they were supposed to be. The Tori rule is she's going to find you, so you better have your hands up and ready," Daugherty said.

Tori said when they were younger she was better than Lidiya but in college her teammate focused on playing post so she flourished. Tori, on the other hand, was more versatile and had to learn all of the other four spots on the court.

After BSU, both players were invited back to the Bulgarian national team. Their student visas protected them so they decided to return in 1994.

As for basketball, Tori didn't see much playing time. I was "eager to fight" but did not get any respect, she said, adding she saw no future staying in Bulgaria. "You didn't know who was really hating on you," Tori said.

Tori scores at Tulalip

Tori decided to come back to Boise, but her longtime friend, Lidiya, stayed in Europe. "Thank God for Facebook and Skype. It makes it a little easier to be away from friends and family," Tori said.

She got married and settled down with a chef and former pro football player. She started making good money as a bartender. She said it was a great job because she got to be a psychiatrist and the best friend of a lot of people. "It was like 'Cheers' where everyone knows everyone," she said of the popular old TV show.

Life wasn't as good at home. She got divorced and grieved about that for some time. Daugherty got her hooked up to play professional basketball overseas, but Tori declined because she was afraid she wouldn't be able to return to the states if she left. Tori also had an open tryout possibility with the Utah Stars of the WNBA but declined because she hadn't played at a competitive level for years.

Meanwhile, a longtime friend who had been trying to get Tori to come to Seattle finally succeeded. At first, Tori volunteered to coach basketball at the Lake Stevens Boys and Girls Club and did some refereeing in Seattle for AAU games. But she finally found her home away from home at the Tulalip club. She said it was meant to be. She recalled one of her first pieces of artwork was of native attire.

"I love the kids out here," she said. "It's amazingly rewarding. The kids grow and change right in front of your eyes."

Chuck Thacker, the club director, said when he saw Tori at Lake Stevens he could see her love for kids.

"She showed them how to do things and was very positive," he said, adding that's just what they want at the Tulalip club.

He said the entire staff teaches kids: "You can do it. You need to try, try, try and not give up. The Creator made you so you can do things."

Tori inspires and is inspired by the kids each day. She can relate to them. Many of them have humble lives. Tori is living proof that there's a "way out." She says it's a fun job. "Who else's job can your entire demeanor change for the day coming from a 5-year-old?" She was referring to a child who was in a corner doing native-style dancing. "It was spiritual."

Daugherty said of Tori: "The kids light up when they see Tori. They glue on to her. She's got so many cards and letters from kids saying she's the only one who believes in them. It's beautiful. It really is."

By going to ballgames with kids' parents and other interactions Tori was accepted by the tribes, Thacker said.

"Trust level is a big factor out here," he said. "Through time they analyzed her. She proved her worth working with kids."

Thacker said Tori is a solid person with guidelines and rules to follow.

"Kids like that. They have security knowing how they should behave," Thacker said.

Family has always been important in Tori's life, and now she has a new one. She said the tribes welcomed her without saying it, which helped her in the tight community with traditional family bonding. "I've been able to connect and truly blossom" here, she said.

Tori said she would love to bring her mom and sister to the states. "I can't wait until I see them," she said. But she doesn't know when that will be. Even though it's been 24 years since she defected she said Bulgaria is still in chaos, and she would never do anything to jeopardize them.

Tori said she's glad she came to America, "even though it's not all peaches and cream like in the movies. I know now things really could have turned south, and I could have been under a bridge" homeless, she said. "I'm so grateful."

Daugherty said Tori shares a commonality with the tribal kids. "She's a great mentor and a great example that they can do anything."

Tori said she can so identify with the Tulalips' saying, "Count your blessings and reach for the stars."

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