Michael’s ‘triple axel’

Watching the Filipino figure skater Michael Christian Martinez compete the other night in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, brought me back to those times when my wife and I used to spend Saturday afternoons at the mall watching our granddaughter Julia learn how to skate on ice. The ice skating rink at SM Megamall was the only available place for this. I remember that it was a quite expensive sport, particularly from the moment a beginner graduates from renting the bladed skating shoes to owning a pair. Julia was then about eight or nine years old, more or less the same age as when Michael took his first glide also in a shopping mall rink.

Our granddaughter’s love affair with ice skating was short-lived; it promptly ended after a year of weekly one-hour sessions. A graduation performance capped the course, and Julia earned a medal—like everyone else. She hasn’t been back in the ice rink since then, even after a bigger one was built at SM’s Mall of Asia. But, there were quite a few kids who would spend the whole day on the rink, and who displayed great potential. Sometimes, I would request some of them to take Julia with them as soon as her instructor turned his attention to the next batch of students.

Michael Martinez must have been one of those serious skaters who stayed on long after the weekend hobbyists have left, willfully stretching the limits of their bodies through endless practice. The reports say he was nine when he began. Today he is all of 17, the youngest figure skating competitor in the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the first ever from the Philippines, a country without winters. He has achieved the improbable: to be able to enter the small circle of the world’s best figure ice skaters on his first attempt.

I held my breath as he executed the first of a series of “triple axel” jumps during the final program, rotating in the air like a slender drill and piercing the ice with just enough residual spin to propel him into a smooth glide. It was so confidently done that the commentators could not conceal their amazement over this newcomer’s exuberance and flair. They kept repeating the term “triple axel” to emphasize the complexity of the jump, observing that the real test of a seasoned skater’s skill is how well he could stage it in the last half of the performance when sheer exhaustion begins to sap the strength of even the most mature among them.

The term “triple axel” sent me scurrying to Wikipedia for its meaning. This is a type of jump in figure skating named after the skater who first performed it in 1882: the Norwegian Axel Paulsen. “To perform an Axel,” says Wikipedia, “the skater … vaults over the toe pick of the left skate and ‘steps up’ into the jump with the right leg. The skater crosses the left foot in front of the right … to bring the center of rotation around the right side of the body…. Uncrossing the legs during the landing checks the rotation and allows the skater to flow out of the jump with good speed.” The triple axel is the most difficult jump there is. I’m sure nonskaters will never know what it takes to do it. As a motorcycle rider, I can only imagine how far more complex an axel is compared to a rider’s attempt to execute a turn by a precise blending of speed, wheel spin, positioning and lean angle. In a sense, it’s like executing a spill, but instead of crashing, one slides out while remaining upright.

Michael stumbled on his second try and fell.  The memory of a fall is carried by the muscles, and is subtly expressed in the tentativeness with which subsequent doubles and triples are completed. But our young man quickly recovered, refusing to be disheartened by a fleeting lapse.  He went on to complete his routine to the soothing strains and sometimes frenzied beat of Ernesto Lecuona’s “Malagueña.” The cavernous Iceberg Skating Palace erupted in applause, no doubt impressed by the brilliance of this young man from a humid tropical country.

Michael looked all alone in that huge palace; there was no team to welcome him back to the stalls. Yet, as he sat back to listen to his scores being announced, his face broke into a wide grin and he held up his white jacket to show the name of the country he was representing: the Philippines. That little gesture spoke volumes. It didn’t matter that he won no medals. He was telling the world that his country exists—not just as the site of catastrophic disasters but as a pool of gifted and disciplined athletes. And, if they were listening, he was also telling his country’s leaders that Filipino athletes could be among the best in the world in any field of sports, with a little support.

We can be sure there are many young people in this country who are like Michael. They have the passion, the capacity for discipline, and the will to set aside everything to pursue a dream. But there is no real sports community or institution to encourage and nurture them. Beyond the basic routines that one would expect to find in a shopping mall skating rink, there was no local mentor to help Michael elevate his craft. On his own, he studied the various techniques by which his idols—the best on the global stage—performed the most difficult jumps, and learned from them. Thanks to YouTube, video recordings of their winning form are easily accessible. This boy helped himself, drawing strength solely from his parents’ belief that he could be a world-class athlete. His mother acquired the services of a Russian coach to prepare him for the competition.

There is a Michael Martinez in every person and in every people. In Peter Sloterdijk’s formulation, this is the voice that tells us that “humans can only advance as long as they follow the impossible.”

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