Filipino Olympic figure skater Michael Christian Martinez talks about what he loves about Korea, competing in the 2018 Olympics venue, and his plans for the upcoming Olympic season.
Olympic figure skater Michael Christian Martinez arrived in the restaurant with an armful of paper bags, a weary smile, and dark circles under his eyes. He had a packed schedule of interviews and TV appearances since he arrived from Helsinki, Finland, after he competed in the World Figure Skating Championships.
“From the fans,” he explained when asked what the paper bags contained. Further digging in the bags revealed gifts and artworks from fans. A couple of hours earlier, Michael was in SM Megamall when he was bombarded by many fans asking for photo ops and autographs.
Upon the smell of pork belly cooking in the grill in front of him, however, the twenty-year-old brightened up, all signs of exhaustion gone from his face. “Samgyupsal!” he exclaimed, watching the meat cook, with fascination. He was in a better mood that he agreed to wear one of the animal ear headbands that we handed to him.
Samgyupsal is not the only Korean food Michael likes—he mentioned he also likes eating galbi, bulgogi, danmuji, tteokbokki, and rabbeoki. He talked enthusiastically about how much he likes kimchi that he would buy lots of it in a store near his apartment in Los Angeles, California.
Falling in love with Korea
Michael has been fascinated with Korea since 2012, when he visited the country for the first time because of a long layover. He remembered skating in the rink at Lotte World and being fascinated with the Koreans’ complexion. He initially thought Koreans were generally angry when they talk, but later found out that it was just their manner of speaking.
His second, and most recent, visit to Korea was in February this year, at Gangneung. Michael went there to compete in the Four Continents Championships, one of the biggest figure skating competitions featuring skaters from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania.
The bus drive from Incheon Airport to Gangneung took three-and-a-half hours, but it was worth it. “Our hotel room was forty minutes away from the [Gangneung Ice Arena],” he said. “Outside the rink is a beach. It’s very relaxing; I love it. I love it when I run into families walking in the beach, spending time together.”
Michael had fallen in love in Korea after his two visits there, and would like to come back. He has taken home a couple of tourist brochures of Korea and already has places that he wants to visit. “Especially now I’m into videography and photography,” he said. “I wanna explore [Korea] without a competition in mind.”
Aside from exploring Korea, Michael has taken interest in several aspects of Korean culture. He had tried learning the language at one time, but had stopped and only knows the basic phrases. He searches for Korean fashion pegs on Pinterest, and he said he would like to copy the style. “Only, I don’t have enough money,” he added with a laugh.
Of course, K-Pop came into mind. Michael said he is most familiar with Big Bang. He recalled a moment in Gangneung when the coach of United States skater Jason Brown showed him a photo she took of an ad of lead rapper T.O.P.
“She showed me the picture and told me, ‘It’s you!’” Michael, however, said he doesn’t see the resemblance.
The road to Pyeongchang
The next time Michael will be in Korea will, hopefully, be in 2018. He will be competing in Germany this September to get one of the remaining six spots for the Olympics in Pyeongchang.
He already had his first-hand experience of being in the Olympic venue in Four Continents. “I told myself, ‘Wow, this is it.’ It felt great to be in the venue of the Olympics.” Being in Gangneung further motivated him to work hard to get the Philippines a coveted spot in the exclusive games.
When asked what Pyeongchang means to him, there was determination in his eyes. “Pyeongchang is my future. Pyeongchang is my everything,” he said. “I’ve sacrificed pretty much everything for this competition. It pretty much summarizes who I am.”
The road to Pyeongchang is not going to easy, especially with the men’s field getting more competitive in terms of technique, but Michael is going to do whatever it takes. He’ll get his free skate choreography in Canada, where he’ll also be training alongside two-time World champions Hanyu Yuzuru and Javier Fernandez, the former who Michael idolizes. He will then work on his technique in Russia. Michael hopes that by the start of next season, he will be ready to land his quad loop and quad toe jumps.
He plans to join domestic competitions in the U.S. before competing in the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Michael hopes the competitions will prepare him for Nebelhorn Trophy, his last chance to qualify the Philippines for the Olympics.
As the interview wrapped up, Michael remembered that his coach Viacheslav Zagorodniuk told him he has to lose ten more pounds when he flies back to California. “I’m gonna die,” he said with a nervous laugh as he piled more grilled meat on his plate. “My coach told me, ‘I’ll kill you when you get back.’” He plans to eat as much as he can before he leaves the Philippines and goes back to his strict diet.
Knowing Michael, although he dreads the long hours of training and the bruises that come with it, his eyes are on the goal ahead—earning the ticket to the the games that only come only once every four years.
He’s going to make sure his third trip to Korea will count.
Written by Bea Mandac / Photos by Elaine Lim