Lina (Yanchulova) Taylor’s remarkable life — an unlikely journey that has taken her from a childhood living under Soviet communism to the Olympics as a beach volleyballer to eco-preneurism and the climate comeback — has one consistent through line: She does not take NO for answer!
Her ‘NO is really the start of the road to YES’ attitude comes in handy for Taylor as she takes on the #ClimateComeback as an eco-preneur and as EcoAthletes’ newest Champion.
Taylor, who was born in Bulgaria in 1975 during the era of Soviet domination, had her first of many life-changing events when she was five.
“We heard the Olympic torch bearers were going to pass near our house in Sofia, on their way from the Olympic Peninsula in Greece to Moscow in the summer of 1980, and we went to the main street to see the Olympic flame,” she recalled. “I can still remember seeing the runner carrying the torch; the flame lit an ember inside me that day.”
Fast forward to 1983 and Taylor, then eight, was growing like crazy (“I was head and shoulders above all my classmates”). Her father Todor, a rower with the Bulgarian national team in his younger days, was determined to get her into a sport. It just wouldn’t be rowing.
“In the communist sports system back then, coaches scout kids as early as elementary school to get them into the ‘system’,” offered Taylor. “My dad did not want me to be a rower — he knew what the system did to him, and it wasn’t good. Volleyball was a better fit, especially since I was tall. That the Bulgarian team had won Olympic bronze in Moscow didn’t hurt. And then when he took me to a local club, I loved it right away.”
Taylor quickly moved up the ranks, getting into a sports academy for middle school. Volleyball was the main thing, academics were secondary: There were two practices per day on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; one-a-days on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday, with games on Sundays.
And that was just a warm-up.
“By the time I was ready for high school, there was no more regular school for elite players,” noted the outside hitter. “We had tutors for the academics and practiced all the time. I LOVED it. I mean I practiced extra!”
Move ahead to 1991 and Taylor, 16, became the youngest player on her elite club that was a feeder to the national team. At the same time, the coach she idolized as a kid took the reins of her team. She was on top of the world.
Until she wasn’t.
“The coach was analytically driven; stats turned out to be everything,” said Taylor. “Evidently, my stats weren’t good enough for her and, out of nowhere at least to me, she cut me, telling our captain to give me the news, with no other explanation. I was in absolute agony. When I got home, I couldn’t tell my parents, rushed into my room, and cried the whole night. I told myself, ‘I’m not gonna wake up.’ Of course, I did wake up. And I thought, if I’m awake, there has to be another way.”
Confronted with what to her felt like the “end of the world,” Taylor decided to show up to practice and face the coach, and the inevitable humiliation that would follow.
This was the first time “NO” wasn’t an option for her.
“The coach kept looking at me, and I didn’t say a word,” Taylor shared. “Then, she just kept walking as if nothing happened. I figured I had one more chance and even though I’d been working hard, I decided to work harder and smarter to prove I was worthy.”
Her second chance earned in the most unusual way, Taylor soon became a starter; the team won the national championship and that led to her selection to the Under-19 national team when she was 17. That meant a trip to Portugal for the World Championships.
Again, Taylor was on top of the world.
And again, that feeling didn’t last long as an official told her she was disqualified because of a clerical error on the part of the Bulgarian Volleyball Federation regarding her passport.
“The federation didn’t fight for me; I couldn’t even sit on our bench or wear the uniform I had given half of my life for,” she said. “I went back to the hotel and cried again. I decided I’m done with this team; I could no longer leave my life in the hands of the system.”
But soon this NO became the beginning of a road to another YES, as Taylor decided to go to the United States, using volleyball to get a scholarship and an education.
Thing was, that yes was found in the most unlikely place.
“A pen pal from Cyprus told me about the volleyball scholarship opportunities in the States so I hand-wrote letters to hundreds of schools,” she recalled. “And then, nothing but NOs. I thought this was another dead end. And then my Cyprus friend tells me she found a letter in the trash from the volleyball coach at the University of Idaho. In the trash! I wrote him, sent a video, and I got the scholarship to play volleyball and study biology. That’s how I ended up in Moscow, Idaho!”
Taylor settled in quickly, becoming a star on the court — she won Big Sky conference Player of the Year honors and propelled the Vandals to four conference championship titles — while graduating with a degree in biology.
It’s worth mentioning that Taylor’s younger sister Petia was also a top volleyballer, but the Idaho coach chose not to recruit her — he actually said, “we have too many Bulgarians”.
That was an ugly if misguided NO.
Enter big sister Lina to get the YES train moving forward.
“We were playing at a tournament at UC Santa Barbara, and I played really well in a game versus the University of San Diego,” she remembered. “After the game, I went over to the USD team — the coach was yelling at them still. She barked at me, ‘what do you want?!’ I said I have a younger sister, Petia Yanchulova, who needs a scholarship. She said, ‘if she’s half as good as you, she’s got one!’ I said to the coach ‘you’re lucky, she’s twice as good as me’.”
Lina soon followed Petia to San Diego, starting a career in corporate America, working for a biotech firm. She lived in Mission Beach and began to play beach volleyball for fun on the weekends. This was 1996, the first year that beach volleyball was played in the Olympics.
“I had played with Canadian Olympian [and future EcoAthletes Champion] Margo Malowney in pick-up games in San Diego,” Taylor said. “I was able to hold my own. So, I thought ‘what if I could play beach with Petia for Bulgaria?’ It was not a thing there; nobody played it.”
Learning beach volleyball was humbling at first for Taylor; it was almost a completely different sport. In indoor volleyball, there are six players per side, playing highly specialized positions. In beach, there are only two players, at that time covering the same size court — the beach court is slightly smaller now – and a player must be able to do everything: block, set, attack, defend. There is nowhere to hide, no substitutions, no coaching is allowed. Players have to figure out everything out themselves.
Lina and Petia, a two-time All American in indoor University of San Diego, decided to make a go of it in beach as Bulgarians, with big sis serving as agent, coach, and travel booker. Money — or lack of it — was a huge hurdle.
“I bought a reversible bathing suit, to look like I had more than one,” Taylor ruefully recalled. “At our first international event in Marseilles, France, we lost in the first round of the qualifier and had to sleep on park benches, because we didn’t even have a credit card to change our flight or get extra nights in a hotel. Of course, the sprinkler system went off and we got drenched! We basically had enough money to split a sandwich on the last day. It was crazy!”
This latest round of ‘crazy’ was just beginning as Taylor returned to San Diego to find out she had been fired from her job — it turns out she didn’t have enough time off when she went to the Marseilles tournament.
Once again faced with a situation in which NO wasn’t an option,’ Taylor reprised her ‘just show up’ approach, showing up for work on Monday. Not surprisingly, her boss asked why she was there. He agreed to her plea to reconsider and sent her to talk to HR. She was put on probation, at first losing the flexible scheduling privileges that had allowed her to train.A year later, Taylor’s hard work got her to YES as she was allowed to work part time, which gave her the ability to travel and compete.
This pivot point helped propel Lina and Petia up the ladder in beach, with their goal being to qualify for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. They started the year as the 73rd ranked team in the world; to be in the Sydney mix, the sisters needed to be in the top 23. With only two months left before the qualification deadline, that meant they had to pass 50 teams, if they were to play in the Olympics. Talk about the world telling you ‘NO’!
Taylor’s mind began to think of how they could get to yes: “It was a long shot, so we needed a strategy. And that was to realize that the teams ahead of us were not our problem so we would NEVER look at the rankings. We were our problem and our solution. Petia and I committed to go full out and focus only on what we could control. We charged dad with following the standings, but he was not allowed to tell us how close – or far away – we were!”
The odds were stacked against them, and the qualification process was grueling and, at times, frustrating. But the sisters kept pushing, kept getting better. The final qualification tournament was in Dalian, China. Lina and Petia finished in ninth. Not knowing if they had made it, Lina called their dad. It was 4:00 am in Bulgaria but he was awake and sobbing. “You made it,” Todor exulted. “It came down to that last match.”
The duo was going to Sydney!!!
The newly minted Olympians invited their dad to be their coach which made it possible for him to go to Sydney to fulfill his Olympic dream — he and his Bulgarian national rowing teammates barely missed qualifying two decades earlier.
“The feeling of being in Sydney at the Olympics, after qualifying with no money, no coaching, being new at the sport, with our father was surreal,” related Taylor. “We didn’t march in the Opening Ceremonies because we had our first match the next day. Our opponents were the #1 team in the world from Brazil. We. Got. DESTROYED. But we didn’t get discouraged. We knew we belonged and made some adjustments. Next up were a pair of Dutch sisters who were #1 in Europe. The stadium at Bondi Beach was packed and the Aussie fans were going nuts. It was an epic battle and we won, 16-14!”
Even though the Cubans were able to take out Lina and Petia in the next match, thus ending their tournament, the sisters were far from despondent. The fact they, per Taylor, “proved everybody wrong by making it to Sydney” served as fuel. They began to play on the pro FIVB tour, establishing themselves in the top 20 in the world, and earning prize money such that they didn’t have to sleep on park benches any longer. And they then set their sights on Athens and the 2004 Olympics.
“Qualifying for Athens was really difficult,” Taylor shared. “I suffered a fractured sesamoid bone in my foot. I never gave it enough time to heal, so I kept fracturing it. Yet we were able to make it and were able to march in the Opening Ceremonies. We lost our first match to Australia — the sand was very deep, like quicksand. So, instead of going back to the hotel after the loss, we practiced for hours to get used to it. Next up were the Germans. That day was super-hot, and I was in agony with stomach cramps. Somehow, we got to 13-13 in the final set. If we lost, we’d be going home. I took a medical timeout because of the cramping. Yet, when we went back on the court, Petia came up with two incredible blocks to win the game!”
The sisters then took out the Chinese, getting out of the group stage and into the Sweet 16. There they faced Brazil, the team that wiped them out four years earlier. It was a taut, back-and-forth match that the Brazilians finally won. Lina and Petia left Greece finishing in a respectable 9th place.
Beijing 2008 was on the sisters’ radar, but the continuous injuries dragged Lina down. Her body was telling her NO. For perhaps the first time in her life she didn’t fight it and decided to retire. While Petia pivoted to ultimately become a renowned astrophysicist, Lina needed to figure out how could she start on the road to the next YES when she didn’t know exactly what that was?
So, she started by making a list.
“The beach volleyball life was very self-centered,” Taylor realized. “Everything revolved around me. That needed to change, and I so I made a list of ways I could get to a YES that would make a difference and allow me to make a living.”
She started managing a volleyball club (“a dream job!”) in San Diego, which put her on a journey to another potential YES.
But then a different sort of YES — this time to a marriage proposal in 2007 from her boyfriend, the retired NFL offensive lineman-turned-sportscaster Aaron Taylor — took her in a different yet very happy direction. Giving birth to and raising three kids over the next decade became her next assignment, one Taylor took on with relish and joy.
The 2020 onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the acceleration of virtual, remote work provided her with yet another pivot point and opportunity.
“I got the opportunity, through AirBnB, to share my Olympic experiences and the lessons I learned from them, with virtual audiences,” she offered. “I shared my story and how people could apply that ‘NO means YES’ ethos to their lives. Sometimes there would be eight people on a Zoom, sometimes there would be in the hundreds. I worked with Intel, Google, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and others. After getting executive coaching certification, I started mentoring C-level leaders at AWS to help them unlock more of their potential.”
At around the same time, Taylor had become more and more concerned about what seemed like the biggest NO facing humanity — climate change.
“I had always been interested in the environment, but it was when I traveled the world in beach volleyball that I really saw the devastation first-hand,” Taylor lamented. “People basically ruined the beaches with trash. That led me to research about the environment and especially climate. Climate action became my #1 passion. I realized that I would need another five lifetimes to become an expert. So, I asked myself, ‘could I do something I am already really good at, executive coaching, — and coach people who could make a difference on climate — to accelerate their results?’ What would that look like?”
It wasn’t long before Taylor turned a thought into reality. Last April, she conceived of what would become Climate Executive Coaching; a month later she began building it, and by September she was up and running.
“Our plan is to be the go-to source for climate-focused coaching for Fortune 500s to the venture capital firms looking to fund companies that could be the engines of the next big advances in clean tech,” she asserted. “We will help their C-Level executives and other high-level managers become more effective climate leaders more quickly than they would have otherwise.”
Taylor believes that being an EcoAthletes Champion can help her bring the Climate Executive Coaching approach to like-minded athletes and that she will learn from her fellow Champions, thus enhancing what CEC delivers to its clients.
“Being an athlete and now an advocate for climate action is at the heart of who I am; that’s why I’m excited to be an EcoAthletes Champion,” she declared. “It’s hard to watch athletes sit on the sidelines on the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity of our time, climate change. I look forward to sharing how I’ve jumped in and made a difference, to learning what these great Champions are doing in their worlds to do the same, and to being part of some powerful collaborations.”
Collaborations that will help turn NOS into some powerful #ClimateComeback YESES.
Photo at top: Lina Taylor dives for a ball at the 2004 Athens Olympics (Photo credit: International Olympics Committee)