GANGNEUNG, South Korea: Filipino skating pioneer Michael Christian Martinez took to the Olympic ice on Friday – barely three weeks after coming out of retirement.
The 21-year-old, who at Sochi 2014 became the first skater from the Philippines to compete at a Winter Games, had been resigned to missing out on South Korea.
“I was sixth of seven at the qualifying event in Germany so I said to myself, it’s time to pack up my skates, I’m done,” he said after his short program in the men’s singles competition.
“My federation told me that it is not going to happen, the other countries confirmed their spots.
“I retired. Then two-and-a-half weeks later they told me, ‘Michael, you’re in.’
“I said, ‘No way!’”
Martinez won’t win a medal in Pyeongchang and came almost last in the short program, but he surprised himself nonetheless.
“I don’t know how I was able to get all my jumps back. It usually takes two or three months to get your jumps back, but I was able to do triple loop and triple axel so it was fine,” he said.
“Normally, if I hadn’t got that call, I’d be back home watching this on TV.”
It has been an emotional few days, said Martinez.
“I teared up when I landed in Korea and saw the Olympic rings. It’s a miracle.
“I still can’t believe it that I am here.”
Martinez’s adventures on the world’s biggest stage have triggered interest in the Philippines, a minnow in Olympic sports.
“Everyone said you wont be able to do it, you come from the Philippines, but I was able to open their eyes and inspire a lot of winter athletes, they were able to produce a hockey team, speed skating, and there are three or four Olympic-size rinks now.
Following him on the ice was another skater from non-traditional Winter Games territory with Julian Yee making Malaysia’s debut at a winter Olympics.
While Martinez – understandably given his rush to compete – scored below his best in the short program, the 20-year-old Yee put in a career-best 73.58, compared to 55.56 for Martinez.
Yee spoke to AFP last month about the hardships of pursuing his skating dream in a winterless, steamy country where temperatures rarely drop below 20 degrees Celsius.
When growing up, the only places he could find to practice were a handful of small, crowded rinks in shopping malls scattered around the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Figure skating on the tiny rinks was “like trying to get an A380 (giant airliner) to land on a very small runway,” said Yee.
Martinez hopes that he and the Malaysian have now set a course for others.
“With Julian here and the other Southeast Asian athletes, we are all working hard and able to compete at these Olympics, so I’m really proud of them all.”