Standing 5 feet tall, weighing 95 pounds and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, Dr. Christina Vassileva looks the part of someone adept at the delicate intricacies of heart surgery.
But the talented heart surgeon, who arrived at Springfield’s Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in October, has a wild side — or at least she had one 10 years ago.
That was when Vassileva, living in Baltimore at the time, reached the top of the amateur boxing world and became the Women’s Golden Gloves national champion in the 100-pound weight class.
That was when her friends and her coach, Jake “the Snake” Smith, had a variety of nicknames for her, including “Mighty Mouse” “Tazmanian Devil” and the “Bulgarian Bulldog.”
“It was just exercise — to keep in shape,” she said. “It gets you in shape, that’s for sure.”
Vassileva said she quit boxing soon after the Golden Gloves because of the time commitment and the risk — to her hands and her head.
“It’s not the smartest sport for a surgeon,” she said, smiling when asked if she ever worried about her opponents’ well being.
“It’s a fight,” she said. “It’s not like they didn’t punch me.”
‘Hits like a truck’
Vassileva, now 35 and the married mother of a 5-year-old son, hasn’t boxed for years, but she still has fond memories of the sport she took up during medical school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
With a bluntness and sense of humor that are part of her personality, she downplayed her own skill and the violence of boxing, especially at the amateur level, in the lightest weight class, when the competitors wear big, padded gloves.
“How hard could those women hit?” she said. “It’s not like it’s a whole lot of power. It’s not like it’s really bloody. You have to take it with a grain of salt. It’s sort of dancing around and tapping each other — that’s what it looks like.”
But a Baltimore Sun reporter who profiled Vassileva’s short boxing career in 2001 quoted a Golden Gloves official who called Vassileva an “impressive young lady. She hits like a truck. Too bad she’ll be a doctor.”
Belt on the wall
Vassileva came to Springfield with sterling academic credentials — including a surgical residency at Johns Hopkins and a cardiothoracic fellowship at a Boston hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School — so she wants to be taken seriously.
But Vassileva, a doctor in a specialty dominated by men, is proud of her athletic accomplishment, an unusual one for a doctor, male or female.
She included a blurb about her championship performance in Augusta, Ga., in her bio on the medical school’s website. And she displays her championship belt in a case on the wall of her private office at Memorial Medical Center.
Dr. Stephen Hazelrigg, chairman of SIU’s cardiothoracic division, recruited Vassileva to Springfield after she finished her fellowship. He said he noticed the Golden Gloves championship on her resume.
“I was both surprised and curious,” he said. “I think it’s quite an accomplishment.”
Hazelrigg, 52, who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, chuckled and said he had visions of a tougher-looking person until he met Vassileva. “She doesn’t fit that stereotype very well. When I first saw her, I was surprised she didn’t look a little meaner.”
He noted, however, that the determination and confidence required for success in a sport can serve a prospective doctor well in medical school and beyond.
But a Golden Gloves championship is definitely unique, he said.
“We have no other boxing champions in the entire surgery department that I know of,” he said.
Vassileva was born and grew up in Bulgaria, the daughter of a mother who was an accountant and a father who was a local governmental official. She said she aspired to be a heart surgeon since she was 12 and tried different activities, from folk dancing to horseback riding to swimming, before focusing on kung fu and kick boxing.
Why the martial arts?
“Competitive, I guess … Aggressive,” she responded. “It’s unusual for females, I suppose.”
She kept busy with kick boxing during college at Northeastern University, where she received a biology degree. She never earned an advanced belt in martial arts but was looking for a place to kick box when she arrived at Johns Hopkins and found a private boxing club near her apartment.
She was training two to three days a week during medical school, and had only one bout to her credit, which ended in a tie, when her coach entered her in the national Golden Gloves championships in 2001.
On the men’s side, Golden Gloves champions have included the likes of Muhammed Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson.
But 2001 was only the third year that the Golden Gloves was open to women. Vassileva didn’t have to make it through any qualifying rounds. And in the 100-pound weight class, only four women were entered. She beat two of them, knocking one of them down, to win the tournament.
An amusing topic
When asked her favorite boxing move, Vassileva said she liked to give body blows followed by punches to the head.
“My coach said that because I’m so short to go low. He would always try to get me to ‘go low and come high,’” she said, laughing. “It won me some fights.”
The Sun article said that en route to the crown, Vassileva beat defending Golden Gloves champion Tammy Sells of Humble, Texas, 5-0.
Vassileva, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is married to an engineer and has a son named Julian.
“Now, I basically fight with my kid,” she said.
Vassileva still weighs about 95 pounds and said she tries to keep in shape by running. At SIU, she specializes in minimally invasive heart-valve surgery, including mitral valve repair, and she is establishing SIU’s Center for Valvular Heart Disease.
Nowadays, boxing is an amusing topic of conversation with her patients, who often learn about her background from referring doctors.
“After this story, I’m not going to have any peace over this,” she said.
Dean Olsen can be reached at 788-1543.
Dr. Christina Vassileva file
* Age: 35
* Assistant professor of cardiothoracic surgery, SIU School of Medicine
* Born and raised in Dobrich, Bulgaria.
* Bachelor’s degree in biology from Boston’s Northeastern University in 1998.
* Medical degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 2002.
* General surgery residency completed at Johns Hopkins in 2007.
* Cardiothoracic fellowship completed in 2009 at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
* Women’s Golden Gloves national champion, 100-pound weight class, in 2001.
Photo: Dr. Christina Vassileva, a heart surgeon at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, says she quit boxing soon after winning a Golden Gloves national title because of the time commitment and the risk — to her hands as well as her head.