From Manila mall to Sochi - Michael Martinez fulfils his dream
Filipino teen, who took to the ice at nine, revels in magic moment by qualifying for the men's free skate final
Michael Martinez nailed the bow at the end.
Four bows, to be exact, though no one could blame him. He didn't seem to want to leave the ice, and no one was going to blame him for that, either.
This wasn't the shopping mall in the Philippines where he learned his jumps and spins while trying to avoid parents and their kids skating by on family outings.
This was the Iceberg Skating Palace and this was the Olympics, where the teenager was desperate for the skate of his young life.
He had less than three minutes to prove himself in the short programme and make it to the men's free skate final.
If he didn't, he might have to be thinking about the next step, perhaps working for his family, raising vegetables to sell to Japan.
The expenses had become too much. The mall gave some money, but in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan there wasn't much the government could do for a figure skater, the nation's only competitor in Sochi.
The family home had already been mortgaged to pay for his skating. There was no more to give.
"We're hoping he makes it and some companies support him," his mother, Maria Teresa Martinez, said.
"Otherwise he will just have to stop. We cannot afford it anymore. It's just so expensive and we can't do another four years."
In a sequined and braided black-and-white outfit donated by a designer in New York who saw his Facebook plea for proper Olympic attire, Martinez took the biggest stage of his life, skating just two spots before the great Yevgeny Plushenko was supposed to go, in front of the capacity crowd.
He acknowledged the polite applause, gliding to the centre of the ice. He paused, struck a pose, and then began the biggest skate of his career.
"I was so nervous," he said. "This was such a big event."
He had reason to be. At 17, he is the youngest skater in the event and the only Filipino figure skater ever in the Olympics.
Still, Martinez was sure he would prevail. The gangly kid with the mop of black hair had to, because this has been his life ever since he walked by the rink in the Manila mall at the age of nine, saw the skaters and declared to his mother that this was something he wanted to do.
He fell on his behind that day, but that didn't stop him from coming back the next. Neither did the asthma that put him in the hospital many times.
"I WILL make the free skate," he declared after practice. "Because I am prepared."
Preparation, though, only counts so much. So on his Facebook page, Martinez asked his friends to "Please pray for me".
He didn't look like a 17-year-old making his Olympic debut, and in two minutes and 39 seconds, Martinez showed he belonged. And now all there was to do was to wait.
"I'm very happy and proud," he said. "I missed just one jump but the rest of the programme was good."
In the kiss-and-cry area, Martinez waved his jacket with "Philippines" on the back to the crowd, drawing cheers. He sat with the Russian coach his mother - who learned skating along with her son so she could save money by coaching him herself - had hired, flashing a thumbs-up sign as his score was posted.
It was 64.81, his best ever. But Martinez would have to wait to find out if it would be good enough to be one of the top 24 who make it to the free skate.
"I think so, maybe half and half," he said. "I'm a little confident, but then I'm not."
Nearby, though, some of the other skaters were struggling. Some fell, others made mistakes that lowered their scores.
Plushenko himself fell on a triple axel in warm-ups, hurting his back and withdrawing his bid to add another medal, on home ice, to the four he had already won.
Suddenly, the math was starting to look good. It wasn't official yet, but Martinez had made it in.
"I feel like a real champion," he said. For one night at the Olympics, that's exactly what the kid from the mall was.