Philippine Star
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MANILA, Philippines - Michael Martinez, the first Southeast Asian figure skater to qualify for the Winter Olympics and a five-time international winner, will try to charm the Malaysian crowd with his charisma in shooting for the gold medal in the first staging of the ice event at the coming SEA Games in Selangor. But it won't be easy skating for Martinez as the host country is pinning its hopes on hometown favorite Julian Zhi Jie Yee, his fiercest competitor in the region.

Both 20-year-old skaters have been battling neck-and-neck for honors over the last two seasons. At the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo last February, Yee finished No.

8 and Martinez, No. 9.

And at the World Championships in Helsinki last March, the Malaysian wound up No. 22 and Martinez, No.

24. Yee is now ranked No. 37 in the International Skating Union world ladder while Martinez is No.

39. Martinez' SEA Games teammate Jules Alpe said he's confident of a gold medal performance by the Muntinlupa wunderkind. "Since the World Championships, Michael has been refining his routine and working on his quad jumps," said Alpe.

"It's been a lot of hard work with his coach (Slava Zagorodnyuk of Ukraine) and I know Michael will come out with a splendid showing. Michael has a way to sweep the crowd off its feet.

Everywhere he performs, the crowd showers him with dolls and bouquets at the end of his routine. I expect it to be the same in Malaysia.

If Michael wins the crowd, he'll win the judges." Alpe, 18, said Yee won't be on Martinez' mind.

"He's not thinking of Julian," said Alpe. "His focus is improving his routine.

" Alpe is the Philippines' only other bet in men's figure skating. He'll perform to the theme music of "Vampire" in the short program and Joe Cocker's "I Put A Spell On You" in free-skating.

In Sapporo, Alpe landed No. 17 of 21 with 128.41 points, way below Yee's 222.69 and Martinez' 211.96. But Alpe said he's optimistic of a stronger showing in Selangor.

This year, Alpe booked solid finishes in overseas competitions, placing second in Bulgaria and fourth in Hungary. Last July, he spent a month training in Moscow with Russian coaches Alexei Federov and Maria Safonova.

It was his second training camp in Moscow after a stint last November. Dean's Corner ( Article MRec ), pagematch: 1, sectionmatch: 1 "I'm skating without pressure in the SEA Games," said Alpe who began his love affair with the sport at his home rink in SM Southmall at the age of eight.

"I'll do my best. My goal is to do all my spins and land all my jumps.

My toughest jump is the Salchow and I'm hoping to do a triple axel." Alpe, who is supported by the SM Group, has performed in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Bulgaria and Hungary over the last nine years.

An only child, Alpe is from Molino, Cavite. His father Laudemer is a retired policeman and mother Alma, a housekeeper.

He finished high school in Cabuyao, Laguna, while living with his grandmother and stopped his college studies in business management after a year to concentrate on figure skating. Martinez will fly straight from his base in Anaheim, California, to Malaysia for the competition at the Empire City rink on Aug.

26-27. Then, he'll likely come to Manila for a brief visit. Martinez has competed in four international meets this season compared to six by Yee as he focused on polishing his routine.

Yee's more active participation has pushed him over Martinez in the world rankings. In women's figure skating, the Philippines will be represented by Alisson Perticheto who trains with Alpe, in Malaysia.

The other Filipina figure skater Samantha Cabiles, who lives in Michigan, begged off a few days ago because of health issues. Philippine delegation chef de mission to the SEA Games Cynthia Carrion said yesterday Cabiles will not be replaced in the figure skating team.