HAD figure skater Michael Christian Martinez not placed a convincing 19th slot at February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, perhaps the modest Hans Sy of SM Prime Holdings would have remained his sole benefactor.
But with his impressive showing on February 13 (Men’s Short Program) and 14 (Men’s Free Skating), Martinez returned to a hero’s welcome a week ago, and had everyone’s attention, including funding commitments for his training for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The 17-year old, 5-feet and 8-inches tall figure skater—the first to compete in Sochi’s snowy field from a tropical region—arrived an hour late on a plane from Dubai to Manila on February 23. He was whisked to a long motorcade from the airport to the Mall of Asia in Pasay City, where fans and adorers shrieked and screamed at the sheepish figure that just years before never realized he would be a worldwide sensation.
Like every celebrity, his short stay in the country was packed with a hectic schedule that included his meet-and-greet sessions at SM Mall skating rinks, where he honed his skills to dance on ice, while inspiring hobbyists to follow in his footsteps.
Accompanied by his mother, Maria Theresa Martinez—the lone figure who had reared him and his two siblings—the fragile-looking and asthmatic sportsman thanked his supporters and fans for the encouragement and confidence they showered him, especially in social media. He reminded them that the honor belonged not just to him but also to all other be-medalled Filipino skaters before him.
Martinez’s mother, his staunchest supporter, had told foreign newspapers before the competition: “Now that he qualified [for the Winter Olympics], we are hoping we can finally get support so he can continue, and try to qualify again in 2018, when he will be more mature and more ready physically and mentally.” (Martinez had bouts of asthma since he was two months old, which eventually lessened in the rink).
As she hoped and prayed for, her son received a check for $10,000 from Sy (courtesy of the SM Foundation); $10,000 from tycoon Manny V. Pangilinan’s MVP Sports Foundation; and P100, 000 from the City of Muntinlupa where his family resides and where grew up and studied for most of his young life.
Fittingly, the motorcade honors, which the local government of Muntinlupa organized for his arrival, wounded up at Martinez’s alma mater, the Muntinlupa School for Child Development, where he gamely posed and played with the schoolchildren.
Sy, president of SM Prime Holdings, who bankrolled Martinez’s training and competition in Sochi, duly promised to shoulder his coming trainings in the US in preparation for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
At a press conference at SM MOA on Sunday, the businessman pointed out that his conglomerate, with the help of the government, can ably fund Martinez’ buildup. (Thus far, the private Philippine Olympics Committee is giving the skater P100,000).
“For the 2018 Winter Olympics, I have assured him [Martinez] that we will support him more this time just to make sure he gives us more reasons to be proud of,” added Sy.
Later that day, Muntinlupa Mayor Jaime Fresnedi, who gave the teenager a separate hero’s welcome parade, declared, “He is first and foremost a Muntinlupeño and our city is proud of him.”
On behalf of the city government, Fresnedi assured Martinez their full support for his next endeavors, as he enthused, “We are privileged to have an Olympian in our midst. He is an inspiration that dreams are possible.”
While competing at Sochi, Martinez’ mother also told foreign press that she supported his training by mortgaging their house, and with financial help from some friends and relatives in the Philippines and abroad. Had he not made it to the finals in Sochi, she said they would have dropped skating altogether.
Martinez’s costume for the Sochi competition—a braided, sequined black and white ensemble—was donated by a New York designer who by chance saw his Facebook plea for proper Olympic attire.
Painful path to Sochi
Martinez’s journey to Sochi was marked by several injuries from trainings in the US and other countries. These injuries forced him to take a break of two to three months before he was able to resume his rigid regiment.
In 2011 he sustained two torn ligaments in the ankle leading to three months of recovery.
In April 2012, he was injured again on a medial ligament in his knee that took yet another three months of recovery. Finally in 2013, he fractured his ankle and was unable to skate for two months.
Despite suffering from an inflamed knee in January 2014, Martinez impressed jurors at Sochi, and on Thursday, left Manila for the United States to resume training under his coach, 1988 Olympic champ Ilia Kulik. He competes next at the World Junior Figure Skating Championship in Bulgaria on March 10 to 16.
Besides Kulik, Martinez is also coached in the US by John Nicks, whose pupils have included skating greats Sasha Cohen and Ashley Wagner.
Star on ice
The global papers and onsite news showered Martinez with praises at the Winter Olympics, despite losing the final rounds.
The Associated Press had written, “From weekend skating sessions at the mall to the sport’s grandest stage. That’s the path taken by a once asthma-stricken boy who defied odds and made do with minimal government support to achieve his dream of representing his country in the Winter Olympics.”
The Washington Post said, “In the kiss-and-cry area, Martinez waved his jacket with ‘Philippines’ on the back to the crowd, drawing cheers. He sat with the Russian coach his mother—who learned skating along with her son so she could save money by coaching him herself—had hired for him, flashing a thumbs-up sign as his score was posted.”
It added: “He began his skate by hitting a nice triple axel, drawing applause from the crowd. But on his second jump he didn’t finish the rotation on a triple lutz and triple toe loop, lowering his marks from the judges. But his spins were good, the rest of the program nicely skated. Most importantly, he didn’t look like a 17-year-old making his Olympic debut. In two minutes and 39 seconds, Martinez showed he belonged. And now all there was to do was to wait.”
At Sochi, Martinez had the chance to rub elbows with his idols such as three-time world champion Patrick Chan of Canada and compete against veterans like 2010 Olympic bronze medallist Daisuke Takahashi of Japan, European titlist Lorent Amodio of France, and US champion Max Aaron.
Indeed, a new star on ice has been born, and yes, he is proudly a Filpino.