For a couple of nights during the first week of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Filipinos were hooked on their television sets (or computers) to watch and cheer for the lone Filipino olympian – Michael Christian Martinez.
During the opening ceremony, he proudly carried the Philippine flag. The Philippines was one of 17 countries that fielded only one representative in the games.
Martinez is not the first Filipino figure skater to participate in the Winter Games and the fifth overall. A namesake, Michael Teruel, an Alpine skier represented the Philippines in the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. This is the fourth time that the country has participated in the Games (1972, 1988, 1992 and 2014).
On the first night of the figure skating competition, Filipinos from across the globe waited to see him skate during the short program, and prayed that he be qualified to compete for the medals competition and the long program the following evening.
Before he skated, Martinez sent a sent a message to his fans and followers through his Facebook page.
“This is for my mother, for God, for my family and for the country,” he wrote.
Martinez, who idolizes Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, qualified to join the 2014 Olympic Winter Games last September after placing seventh in the 2013 Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.
At the Sochi Games, Martinez got a score of 64.81, and placed 19th out of 29, qualifying him to compete in the free skate. He garnered 119.44 and finished 19th overall with a total score of 184.25
The 17-year-old figure skater also became the first Southeast Asian figure skater to ever compete in the Winter Olympics. Prior to the Olympics, he placed fifth at the 2013 World Junior Championships and has won two senior international medals.
What made the teener’s story compelling was the fact that he had to go through a lot of challenges in order to make it to Sochi. Media reports say that his family mortgaged their home just so he can fulfill his Olympic dream.
Then there were the injuries – he was out for two months in 2013 with a fractured ankle. In 2012, he was sidelined for three months after tearing a medial ligament in his knee in and in 2011, he tore two ligaments in his ankle, and it took him three months to recover. He also suffered a cut to his thigh from a skating blade in 2009, and took two months to recover.
According to his official Olympics profile, he was born with asthma. At age two months he was in hospital with asthmatic bronchitis.
“I literally grew up in the hospital as I was very sick. I couldn’t take up any sport. I tried outdoor sports when I was younger, but I easily got asthma attacks so I stopped. I had asthma maintenance medicine when I started skating, since the cold in the rink makes me sick too. But year after year my health keeps improving, so my mother fully supported me to continue skating. She said it’s better to spend the money on skating than in the hospital,” Martinez said.
It all began when he was around eight years old, and went to a mall in Las Pinas. It was there where he saw kids, teens and even adults skating on an ice rink. He asked his mom if he could try it out and after a couple of hours, the young boy knew what he wanted to do.
That was nine years ago.
Today, that boy who dreamed is now a certified Olympian.
A recent AP report also said that Martinez is one of the top five most buzzed-about Olympic athletes on Facebook.
Shaun White, the American snowboarder whose bid for a third straight gold medal in the halfpipe fell short, had the early lead among attention-getting athletes, but figure skating is by far the sport that attracts the most interest. Martinez is the only figure skater – male or female – in the top five list; the other most popular athletes so far are Jenny Jones, the British snowboarder; Canadian skier Alex Bilodeau; and American snowboarder Jamie Anderson.
According to AP, Facebook said Friday that more than 24 million people have commented on the Olympics during Sochi’s first week, with a total of 48 million posts, comments and “likes.” The most activity was in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
From AP to the Washington Post to NBC to Huffington Post and New York Times, Michael Christian Martinez became a toast of the media in Sochi, some of the features discussed his journey from a mall in a tropical country to the main stage of the Olympics. (see sidebar)
Aside from Martinez, Filipino Olympics fans, viewers and netizens were happy to find out that there were three other Filipino athletes in Sochi competing under different countries.
The most famous among them is JR Celski, a short-track speed skater representing the United States.
He first made it into the consciousness of Filipino fans at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics where he competed alongside his idol Apolo Anton Ohno.
Born to a Filipino mom (Sue) and a Polish dad (John Robert), JR was initially into inline skating. He quickly realized that there was no Olympic sport for inline skating so he tried skating on ice.
He won two bronze medals in Vancouver, a major achievement in itself since he almost missed the games because of a severe injury that happened five months before the opening ceremony. After crashing during a race, he cut his leg with his own skate blade, narrowly missing a vein which could have led to paralysis.
The 23-year-old JR was however, hell-bent on joining the Olympic team this time. Four years prior, he narrowly missed the 2008 Torino Olympics because he was underage by 17 days. His eventual recovery was swift and sure enough, he was able to make it to the team.
The Seattle native dominated at 2014 Olympic Trials, winning every distance and qualifying a spot on the team in each one. With four events at Sochi, Celski failed to make it to the podium this time, placing fourth in the 1500 meters.
Then, there’s Gilmore Junio, a long track speed skating athlete representing Canada.
In his official Olympics profile, Junio said that he took up the sport because “I was too small for ice hockey, but saw an advert on TV for speed skating. The coach said I had potential.”
In Sochi, the 23-year-old Junio gave up his place in the 1000m to teammate Denny Morrison, who went on to win a silver medal in the race.
“To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge honour and privilege but I believe that as Canadians, we’re not just here to compete; we are here to win. Denny has proven to be a consistent medal threat in the distance,” Junio said.
Junio was recently featured in MacLean’s Magazine, Canada’s weekly news and current affairs magazine, where he was praised for giving up the spot to his team-mate.
The backstory is this – Morrison, a specialist in 1000 meters, placed fifth during Canada’s Olympic trials late last year because his skate clipped his heel. Junio, a sprinter, qualified in both 500 and 1000 meters.
Days before the 1000 meters event, the program director for Speed Skating Canada asked Junio if he’d consider giving up his second event, so that Morrison could take his place.
The Maclean feature, which was titled “The race Gilmore Junio didn’t skate” said – The decision whether to step aside was left entirely to Junio. Imagine the import of that request. He’d spent four years on the national team gutting out a chance to make the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi; now he was asked to consider walking away from an Olympic race, to risk disappointing his parents, who flown to Russia to watch him race.
Junio told his family his decision Monday night, then he picked up the cell phone the Canadian Olympic team had provided athletes and he texted this to his friend Denny Morrison: “Are you ready for the 1,000m, yay or nay?”
This was a gesture that the Toronto Sun said “touched the hearts of Canadians and sports fans around the world.”
Morrison won the silver, narrowly missing the gold by four one hundredths of a second.
Canadians and some athletes representing the country started a campaign to name Junio as the flag-bearer during the closing ceremony this Sunday because of this selfless act.
According to The Sun, the ladi-back skater is still shocked that anyone would consider that decision a big deal.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Junio, the son of Filipino immigrants who came to Canada in the 1970s for a better life.
Walter Mirren, a Canadian, posted on Maclean website – “This young man – Gilmore Junio – has earned the right to carry our Canadian flag in the closing ceremonies. He has MORE than earned that honour. And in four years, young Mr. Junio will skate home with his own collection of medals. His parents in Canada and his relatives in the Philippines will be proud – as will be all of Canada and the Philippines.”
Ramon Romero, a Filipino-Canadian couldn’t agree more. He posted on the canada.com article on Junio – “Being a Filipino-Canadian myself I was emotionally filled with a huge sense of pride. Watching Gil Junio cheer for Denny Morrison during the race, I felt myself too in Gil’s shoes and Denny’s skates winning the silver. Their teamwork truly exemplifies the Canadian Spirit in these games.”
Anne Line Gjersem
Not to be forgotten is figure skater Anne Line Gjersem, who is representing Norway.
According to an abscbnnews.com article, the 20-year-old Gjersem’s is the first Norwegian and the only figure skater to qualify in the Olympic event after 50 years. Not since 1964 has a Norwegian qualified to compete in the sport, which was ruled by Norwegian figure-skating legend and three-time gold medalist Sonia Henie in the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Winter Games.
Anne Line and her twin sister Camilla Marie were born in Norway to Petter Gjersem, and Filipina Perlina Bangug, who hails from Ilagan, Isabela.
She placed 24th during the short program on Wednesday, Feb. 19th and garnered a score of 48.56.
Her official Olympic profile said that she started skating at the age of eight. She and Camilla decided at age nine they wanted to focus fully on figure skating. They initially trained once a week for a year, then started training daily with a private tutor. At age 12 she set herself the goal of competing at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
An AFP story said that this early, the Gjersem twins already have set their sights on the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea.
“She’s (her twin) at home in Norway in the studio watching. I face-timed (on the phone) with her before my programme,” said Anne Line. “She always says positive things to me and she’s my biggest supporter.”
Gjersem wore a light blue sequined outfit as she skated to “Maria and the Violin’s Sting” by Ashram.
“I’m very happy that Norway has a spot here. I’m very proud to represent my country and I’m very excited,” she told AFP after taking the 24th and final qualifying spot in the short programme.
“I’m quite satisfied with my programme. It could be a little bit better, the first jump, and I could have had more speed. I could feel it in my body that I was a bit tense. I enjoyed skating and was trying to do my best.”
(NYNJ February 21, 2014 LifeEASTyle Magazine pg.2)