In 2013, Michael Martinez became the first Southeast Asian skater to qualify in the Winter Olympics, representing Philippines in figure skating. He has lived the Olympic dream twice now, first at Sochi in 2014 and then at Pyeongchang in 2018.
With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing coming up, many Filipinos are asking: will Michael carry the flag a third time?
Qualifying for Figure Skating at the Olympics is much more complicated than what meets the eye. In fact, we have two other Filipino figure skaters who are just as qualified to represent the country at the Olympics, if given the chance.
PhilSTAR L!fe talks to these two amazing young men—Christopher Caluza and Edrian Paul Celestino—to get the whole picture and understand what it really takes to qualify and skate at the Olympic stage.
Christopher Caluza: A beacon of hope
Every great man has an origin story and for Christopher, his started on roller skates. Christopher was born and raised in the US to Filipino parents. He would use to skate with his cousins in a roller rink in California, and when it closed, his parents took him to an ice skating rink instead. He was just imitating moves he has seen on television when a coach saw him and suggested that he get figure skating lessons.
For a while, he skated for fun. But ultimately, it was the 1998 Olympics with Tara Lipinski that made him wanted to compete.
In 2011, Christopher officially became a Philippine representative, bagging his first gold at the Philippine National Championships. Looking back, he said that that season was some of the most memorable years of his career. Coming from his National Championship, he competed for the first time internationally, and soon took home the bronze medal at the Bavarian Open. Just a week after that, he became the first Filipino to qualify to the Free Skate on the World Figure Skating Championships, the most prestigious competition in the world of figure skating—save for the Olympics.
Christopher has had a colorful career since then. Colorful as a bit of pun since he is also the first openly gay Southeast Asian skater to win a senior international title.
He placed 12th at the Four Continents, 2nd at the Lombardia Trophy, first at the EduSport Trophy, and then two consecutive National titles following his first gold. He ended this streak with a victory at the 2019 SEA Games held in Manila, where he finished second to Malaysian Olympic skater Julian Yee.
“The years I competed for the Philippines had a lot of highs and a lot of lows. Coming back in 2019 and competing against the greatest Southeast Asian skater Julian Yee was an amazing privilege. My teammates and other Filipino skaters have been so supportive,” says Christopher. “I am not new to performing in front of a big crowd, but I feel it’s beyond that because I am able to go back to my roots and my family’s country.”
And then, of course, COVID-19 happened.
“2020 was a very enlightening year for me. Before WHO declared this a global pandemic, I was still in training. I was in South Korea for the 2020 Four Continents when the coronavirus news blew up. I went to school for phlebotomy and I was trained for infection control, so I went to all the drug stores to find masks and gloves. I was keeping in touch with my friend who is a doctor and he told me about social distancing and washing my hands. It felt surreal when I was there. When I came home, I knew it was going to get worse because South Korea closed right after we left. I had no control, so I had to let God do his work and keep my hopes up,” says Christopher.
With the pandemic closing the rinks and unable to train and continue his work as a figure skating coach, Christopher then worked as a concierge, walking the elderly and helping them out with their needs. When the rinks began to reopen, he trained with Olympic skater Keegan Messing in Alaska for a while before coming back to California to continue his training and coaching since the US had started to aggressively roll out the vaccine.
Now, things are slowly going back to normal. “Training has been good as it can be. I’m slowly getting back into my usual routine. Of course, every part of my body—both mentally and physically—is hurting. But it’s part of being an athlete,” says Christopher.
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His usual day starts at 4 a.m., with ballet training at 5, rink time, going back home for a quick rest in between, before going back in the afternoon to teach younger skaters.
The ice was Christopher’s whole life before the pandemic hit, and even though he got to exploring his other hobbies when the rinks were closed such as photography, singing and dancing, it’s good to see him back in his element—at home in the icy cold rink, among great skaters and young hopefuls who are eager to learn from him.
Christopher is 30 years old now, a bit older for someone in a sport that starts and peaks young. But he has shown that he can conquer all odds. His silver at the SEA Games was nothing short of proof of that, as he skated against teens and competitors much younger than him—and he killed it.
That’s why when asked what legacy he would like to leave in the sport as he gives his all to get that one last shot at the Olympics, he says, “Age is not what limits an athlete, but mostly what goes on mentally. And there’s not a lot of skaters at 30 years old who are still going for that dream. My strengths: I have experience, mindfulness, and no expectations.”
Edrian Paul Celestino: An up-and-coming contender
Canada is famous for many things—one of them hockey. And for Edrian, who was born and raised in Canada, hockey was a dream that he shared with many other kids his age. But in order to play hockey, Edrian had to take figure skating lessons first.
Edrian candidly shares that while he spent most of his lessons on his butt than his blades, he ended up liking figure skating so much he began to take that route in the end.
“But when I got to elementary school, that’s when I questioned my path in terms of sports, because my classmates thought figure skating was weird for a guy. It was not a manly sport,” says Edrian. “I almost switched out. And by high school, I had to choose between basketball and figure skating.”
The choice he made was what led him to where he is now. In 2018, Edrian dethroned Christopher as the Philippine National Champion.
Just like Christopher, Edrian says that he can say the most memorable moments in his career was the first year he decided to carry the Philippine flag. Representing the Philippines brought him to his first international competition, where he got to share the ice with some of the heavyweights in the sport like Yuzuru Hanyu and Nathan Chen.
Edrian then returned to the country for the 2019 SEA Games to compete against Christopher, finishing fourth, just a few points shy from the podium. “Just competing in home soil, it was a complete thrill. It was an overwhelming experience, so I knew I was very nervous in the competition, but I knew had a lot of fun,” he says.
When Covid-19 struck, Edrian, like many, saw many changes in his figure skating training. He also stopped coaching, which he has been doing since he was 17—but it’s not all that bad.
“I kind of did continue doing off-ice training to keep the muscle memory going. I also got a little more creative with the way I was training. We can skate outside (because lakes and bodies of water would freeze over during the winter, creating outdoor rinks) and that was something new for me as well,” says Edrian. “I just kind of disconnected and was focusing on myself and well-being and it’s a nice break, you can say, from everything.”
Although he admits that his training now is a bit different compared to pre-Covid era, since they had to adjust to new training schedules and bubbles, he is making the most out of it. He skates mostly in the morning, 4 times a week to give his body more rest and have more condensed energy for training.
Edrian is now in a place where he skates for himself and to his strengths. It’s a beautiful eye-opening outlook in an immensely competitive sport, which is a good precedent for a long and healthy skating career.
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But while he is mostly chill and contented with how his training and how life in general are going for him, Edrian’s most recent national title is definitely proof that he is a serious contender. And like Christopher, the pandemic will not him them from eyeing the prize: the 2022 Olympics.
The Olympic dream
The Olympics remain to be the biggest and most sought-after sporting event internationally. For the Philippines, the Winter Olympics has always been an elusive event, especially as a tropical country with little to no resources for winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, hockey, speed skating, and figure skating.
Michael Martinez, in the last years, changed all of that. And now, we have Filipino figure skaters like Christopher and Edrian poised to follow his footsteps and continue to wave the Philippine flag in one of the coldest and most coveted sporting events in the world.
Christopher has been very vocal about his dream to step on the Olympic ice, saying in an Instagram post, “One more year, one last chance!”
So now, we have Christopher, Edrian, and Michael all working towards that goal of securing a spot at the Olympics. Not all three of them will have that opportunity. Who will get the chance to represent the Philippines and do that?
We talk to Philippine Figure Skating Union (PHSU) president Nikki Cheng, to understand who will have that shot at the 2022 Winter Olympics. “The Nebelhorn Trophy is one of two Olympic qualifying competitions—and it is the last. We can only send one representative each for male and female in this competition to secure a slot for the Philippines,” explains Nikki.
For the uninitiated, there are certain qualifications to be able to compete at the Olympics. There are two ways to secure one of the only 30 slots in the Olympics—the first, as mentioned, is Nebelhorn, and the other being the World Figure Skating Championships, where most of the slots are allocated.
This year, 24 slots were given out at the World’s, and only six slots remain to be claimed at the Nebelhorn Trophy. This means that only the top six skaters from the Nebelhorn Trophy will be able to get a slot to compete at the Olympics.
However, each country can only send one skater to the Nebelhorn Trophy to skate for that chance at the Olympics. And in the case of the Philippines, since we were not able to hold our National Championships because of the pandemic, we’re left with three skaters who are all equally talented and qualified to try and fight for that Olympic slot.
Now, it is up to the PHSU to create a system so they can choose fairly who to send to the Nebelhorn Trophy. Nikki says that they’re currently polishing and finalizing this system and will be cascaded soon to the athletes.
“We’re in contact with all of our elite skaters and regularly check up on them. I admire them for how they push despite the pandemic. We’ve gone through a phase where everyone had to take a break from training on the ice, but I’ve never seen any of them stop their off-ice training to keep themselves in good condition,” says Nikki.
So, for now, Christopher, Edrian, and Michael will have to continue to train so they will be in top shape for when the qualifying system is ready.
Dedicating yourself and your life to something is difficult. For most athletes like Christopher and Edrian, they offer up their time, energy, and bodies to be able to push the limits of human capabilities. They both joke that every athlete is injured most of the time, and it’s just about managing these difficulties and learning how to get up and try again.
Yes, it is difficult, but in the end, it is equally rewarding—you get to wave the country’s flag. You stand in the global spotlight for the millions of Filipinos who don’t have the resources or the capabilities to do what you have done.