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From SM to Sochi

/ 12:41 AM February 12, 2014

Some readers may still remember the movie “Cool Runnings,” the 1993 film about the fantastical, almost absurd attempt of a team from Jamaica to compete in the men’s bobsled event in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.

The film was funny and inspiring—and mostly because Jamaica is a tropical country that never sees snow. In fact, one of the funniest scenes that I remember is that of the team exiting the airport and nearly freezing in their tracks when the frigid air hits them.

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The central thesis—the chutzpah of a group of young men who had never experienced winter in their lives daring to compete in one of the world’s toughest races against the very best—was both comical and touching. One just had to admire the guts of the Jamaicans competing far, far away from their tropical comfort zone.

Well, what title would we give a movie about Michael Christian Martinez, the lone Filipino competing in the Sochi Winter Games? “Cool Skating”? “From SM to Sochi”? “Thin Ice”?

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At the opening ceremonies of the Winter Games, Martinez stood and marched alone as he represented the Philippines, proudly bearing our flag. After 22 years, the Philippines was once more represented in the Winter Olympics—this, even if the Philippines is a tropical country and, despite the record low temperatures of just a few weeks ago, has never been visited by snow, although some may remember isolated instances of frost or hail from time to time.

And tomorrow, Martinez will compete for what he and the rest of his country folk hope will be a medal in men’s figure skating.

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It’s literally been a road from SM to Sochi, as Martinez learned the rudiments of skating at the age of eight when his parents enrolled him in basic ice skating lessons at SM Southmall near his family’s Parañaque residence.

I remember when the first SM skating rink was built at SM Megamall, scoffing at the idea of brown Filipinos learning to skate on ice even if they lived in a warm, rainy country. But since then, teams from these mall rinks have competed internationally, and winning medals even. Martinez is simply the one who dared believe in his talent and prowess so much he decided to pit himself against the best skaters in the world. And for that, I understand from other reports, his parents and family were willing to sacrifice their own time and resources to fuel his dreams.

In fact, it’s said that Martinez’s parents had to mortgage their home just so they could make it to Sochi and lend their moral support to the young skater. I doubt very much, despite the Pinoy diaspora, if there would be a substantial Filipino community in Sochi.

To make it to Sochi, Martinez had to beat competitors in various international skating events. With funding support from tycoon Manny Pangilinan, he has also been able to secure the coaching expertise of known authorities such as Ilia Kulik, Peter Kongkarem and, at present, John Nicks from California.

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Netizens have made much of the lack of state support for Martinez’s Olympics dream. Although, strictly speaking, Olympics competitors are supposed to be amateurs. Still, the Philippine Olympic Committee, given Martinez’s impressive accomplishment just to qualify for Sochi and the novelty factor of his presence in the Games, should and could have lent some support.

But that’s another matter altogether, the subject, in fact, of an ongoing Senate hearing.

For now, all we can do is marvel at the strength and fortitude of a Filipino teenager—and his family and supporters—who dared pursue his quest even if so many would consider it quixotic at best. Let’s cheer for Michael Martinez when he takes to the ice tomorrow!

* * *

Perhaps it’s not as “quixotic” as Michael Martinez’s figure skating crusade, but just as notable was the successful attempt of a pair of Filipino swimmers to complete the Robben Island channel crossing in South Africa.

Having completed the swim in just over two hours (way under the three-hour limit), Betsy Medalla and Julian Valencia thus became the first Filipinos and the first Asians to complete the crossing.

I am especially impressed with Medalla, who completed the challenge at the age of 44, proof that if a woman and mother of two puts her mind (and body) to it, she can accomplish anything—even braving the cold water and the expected exhaustion and fatigue.

In fact, Valencia, reports this paper, was suffering from near-hypothermia when he stepped out of the water, describing the experience as “extremely painful.”

The pair accomplished the challenge as part of a charity event dubbed “A Rainbow of Hope: A Celebration of Philippine-South African Friendship.”

* * *

Notably, “A Rainbow of Hope” was spearheaded by Buddy Cunanan, described as the honorary consul of Georgia here, but also a media practitioner and inveterate traveler.

In fact, I suspect that Cunanan (he is also the son of former Inquirer columnist Belinda Olivares Cunanan and the late ambassador and general Thelmo Cunanan) got involved in the charity venture because he has visited South Africa frequently and counts many friends there.

Reporter Cynthia Balana said the swim was organized to commemorate the life of the late Nelson Mandela and to raise funds for “Yolanda” survivors.

Medalla and Valencia may not have suffered the lifelong rigors of detention and harassment that Mandela, the revolutionary and global icon of freedom, did. But in their own way, braving the frigid waters of Robben Island channel and doing our country proud, they are patriots and heroes, just like the lone Filipino teener hoisting the Philippine flag at Sochi.

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TAGS: Betsy Medalla, column, Julian Valencia, Michael Christian Martinez, Rina Jimenez-David, robben island channel crossing, sochi Olympics
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