A first for Southeast Asia: An Olympic figure skater

Story highlights

  • Teenage from the Philippines is first Olympic figure skater from southeast Asia
  • Michael Christian Martinez started skating at age 8 at public rink
  • He has had just two months of full training because of financial factors

A Philippine teenager with a shy, crooked smile and expressive eyebrows -- who also happens to be the first figure skater ever to represent a Southeast Asian country -- qualified for the free skate after his performance on Thursday.

Michael Christian Martinez, the lone athlete for the Philippines, is an unlikely competitor from a country without snow.

Catapulted into the limelight after qualifying last year, his entire home country, which has never won a medal in the Winter Olympics, is rooting for him.

On Thursday, he finished 19th overall with a total segment score of 64.81 which means he'll move on to Friday's final free skate.

"I'd love to qualify for the free skate [top 24]; that would be a big accomplishment for me," Martinez, 17, said in an interview with NBCOlympics.com prior to the competition.

Philippines' flag bearer, Michael Christian Martinez, leads his national delegation during the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

"I don't know what placement I'll get because my training is so different, but we'll see."

It's likely to be a David-versus-Goliath match-up. Facing medal favorites such as Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Canada's Patrick Chan, who rank first and second after the short program, Martinez has not benefited from the same intensive training as many of his competitors.

    Maria Teresa Martinez, his mother, said her son had full training for two months before arriving in Sochi because of difficulties funding his Olympic aspirations.

    Ice skating is a costly endeavor with expenses for travel, equipments and coaches.

    His mother told CNN in an email that the family patched together donations from a local shopping mall ice rink, friends and his skating club. She said the family's life saving has been depleted and that their family's farm in Luzon province had been damaged by typhoons last year.

    If Martinez hadn't qualified for the Olympics in 2013, he would've had to quit competitive skating because his family couldn't afford it, his mother added.

    "Now that he qualified, we are hoping we can finally get support so he can continue, and try to qualify again in 2018, where he will be more matured and more ready physically and mentally," she wrote.

    Regardless of how he fares this week, Martinez has come a long way.

    Born in Paranaque City, Martinez was stricken with asthmatic bronchitis at two months old. As a young boy, he struggled with sports because of his asthma attacks.

      Just Watched

      Sochi's massive overspend

    Sochi's massive overspend 04:17
    PLAY VIDEO

      Just Watched

      Canadian speed skater Hamelin takes gold

    Canadian speed skater Hamelin takes gold 02:41
    PLAY VIDEO

      Just Watched

      Shopping for Olympic souvenirs in Sochi

    Shopping for Olympic souvenirs in Sochi 01:46
    PLAY VIDEO

      Just Watched

      No halfpipe medal for Shaun White

    No halfpipe medal for Shaun White 02:02
    PLAY VIDEO

    "I couldn't take up any sport. I tried outdoor sports when I was younger, but I easily got asthma attacks so I stopped," he said in his Sochi Olympic athletes profile.

    "I had asthma maintenance medicine when I started skating, since the cold in the rink makes me sick too. But year after year, my health keeps improving, so my mother fully supported me to continue skating. She said it's better to spend the money on skating than in the hospital."

    He got his first glimpse of skating after going to a shopping mall with his mother at age 8. He became mesmerized when he saw skaters spinning and jumping.

    By age 12, he was competing in European junior competitions and winning gold without a coach, his mother said.

    In 2010, he began training in the United States with coaches including John Nicks and Ilia Kulik, she said.

    Martinez splits his time between Manila and Los Angeles.

    In 2013, he came in fifth at the world Junior Championships in Milan. He is currently ranked 30th by the International Skating Union.

    Martinez does not have a dedicated practice rink in the Philippines and has to use a public one, his mother said. In late January, Martinez nursed an inflamed knee, saying it was likely caused by skating on rough ice, according to an interview with Catholic News Service.

    Martinez' social media accounts show a smile-prone teenager flashing peace signs in photographs and having the time of his life in Sochi.

        Aiming for Gold

      • intv davies sochi iconic olympic images_00022301.jpg

        With the Olympic cauldron now extinguished, CNN takes a look at whether Russia's $50 billion Sochi budget was money well spent.
      • Canada's Sidney Crosby scores past Sweden's goalkeeper Henrik Lundqvist during the ice hockey final at the Bolshoy Ice Dome during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 23, 2014.

        The athletes on show in Sochi provided moments of drama and destiny that captured the imagination and settled in the collective memory.
      • Norway's Ole Einar Bjoerndalen competes in the Men's Biathlon 15 km Mass Start at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 18, 2014, in Rosa Khutor, near Sochi. AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO PIZZOLI (Photo credit should read ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

        Russia may have topped the medals table at the first Winter Olympics it staged, but which country was most successful per capita?
      • SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 08: Katie Uhlaender of the United States shows a bald eagle design on her helmet as she prepares to make a run during a Women's Skeleton training session on Day 1 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 8, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

        From eye-popping helmet designs to F1-influenced bobsleigh, the Sochi offered a bewildering array of technological innovation.
      • Fireworks explode over the Olympic park at the end of the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 23.

        Sochi's closing ceremony took an artistic look at Russian culture before the Olympic flag was handed over to South Korea for the 2018 Games.
      • Critics say it would have been cheaper to coat this Russian road with caviar but will the route made for Sochi reap long-term rewards?
      • Tomas Portyk of the Czech Republic jumps during the Nordic Combined Individual Large Hill official training on day 10 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at RusSki Gorki Jumping Center on February 17, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

        Navigate your way around this spectacular 360-degree picture from Sochi's ski-jumping venue at the Winter Olympics -- and find out how it was created.
      • Sochi's transformation has left even the local cab drivers a bit lost and confused -- but don't let that put you off visiting this rejuvenated Black Sea resort.
      • For a Winter Olympics, there are some very colorful characters from some very tropical climates taking part -- including this "Mariachi" skier.
      • Gold medalist Jamie Anderson of the United States and bronze medalist Jenny Jones of Great Britain celebrate during the flower ceremony for the Women's Snowboard Slopestyle Finals during day two of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 9, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

        If snowboarders were an introduction to a younger, hipper, "slacker" generation of Olympians, the next wave has taken it to another level.
      • A prop from the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

        It has been dubbed Russia's Las Vegas. But has Sochi's massive renovation come at a cost to the region's stunning natural environment?