Taped to a red training coat with a not-be-seen logo underneath it, a small laminated plastic flag of the Philippines is placed squarely on the chest of figure skater Michael Christian Martinez, the country’s first Winter Olympian in two decades.
The 17-year-old Filipino who trains in Los Angeles and has a Russian coach is also the Philippines lone representative here, making his Olympic debut and becoming the first-ever figure skater to represent any Southeast Asian country.
“It feels great that I’m here representing the Philippines at the Olympics,” Martinez told NBCOlympics.com in an interview Wednesday. “There is a lot of pressure on me because not only am I skating for my country, but for all the hard work I’ve put in the last four years.”
Olympic dreams start all over the world each and every day. For Martinez, it was in an air-conditioned shopping mall in humid Manila at the age of nine.
“I saw skaters doing jumps and spins on the rink at the mall,” the teenager remembered. “After the first time I tried it I loved the sport already.”
Suffering from asthma, Martinez couldn’t play soccer or the outdoor sports popular among his friends, so he took to figure skating. For three years he skated once a week at the mall rink, taking lessons and building the foundation for the skills that would one day help take him to the Olympics.
For a time, Martinez trained in Colorado Springs, observing top-level U.S. skaters like Jeremy Abbott and “saw the difference of how they worked,” he said. “I saw potential in myself, but realized that I was missing a lot of stuff.”
It was then that he moved part-time to Los Angeles, working with a top-notch team that includes 1998 Olympic champion Ilia Kulik, famed coach John Nicks and choreographer Phillip Mills. Primarily, however, he works with Viktor Kudriyavtsev, a longtime coach in the sport who had Martinez train in Moscow the month leading up to Sochi.
Martinez sealed his Olympic berth at a qualifying event in late September, falling once in his free skate but holding on for one of six Sochi places up for grabs there.
The homeschooled skater looks up to many of the Olympians he’ll be rubbing shoulders with, including Patrick Chan, Yuna Kim and Yuzuru Hanyu. His goal for Sochi?
“I’d love to qualify for the free skate [top 24]; that would be a big accomplishment for me,” Martinez said. “I don’t know what placement I’ll get because my training is so different, but we’ll see.”
“People always ask if we have ice rinks in the Philippines,” Martinez said, laughing. Questions come at the regular: How is it possible? Where does he train? How does he train?
It’s a far throw from Manila – which has three ice rinks total, by the way – to Sochi, where Friday night Martinez will carry his country’s flag as its only Winter Olympian in 2014.
“I feel proud because there are a lot of people that say that because we’re a tropical country, we can’t do this or we can’t do that,” Martinez concluded. “But what I say to them is them is that I’ll be the first one to skate in the Olympics. I’m proud of that.”