How a Barrie, Ont., skate club helped get Malaysia to their 1st Winter Olympics

These Winter Olympics mark the first time tropical Malaysia has made it to the games — and they've got a skate club in Barrie, Ont., to thank.

'No one would ever think that Malaysia would have made it,' says figure skater Julian Yee

Malaysian figure skater Julian Yee poses in front of the Gangneung Ice Arena at Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Yee is one of two athletes representing Malaysia at the tropical country's first trip to the Winter Games. Yee moved to Canada and trained at a skating club in Barrie, Ont. (Submitted by Julian Yee)

These Winter Olympics mark the first time tropical Malaysia has made it to the games — and they've got a skate club in Barrie, Ont., to thank.

Figure skater Julian Yee is one of two Malaysian athletes who competed in Pyeongchang.

A lack of rinks in Malaysia meant he had to train abroad. He wound up at Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating, an incubator for training champion figure skaters from Canada and around the world.

"It was a long distance away from home, that's for sure," said Yee, 20.

"People there are so friendly ... I find that Canada, it's sort of like my second home even though I don't have permanent residency yet. I hope to get it someday."

Yee started skating at four. His family knew early on he would have to leave to train. Growing up in Malaysia, there were only two rinks to skate on. Yee said there's now four, all in shopping malls.

"It's really a different environment to train in because you've got the shops, you've got music going on and halfway [through] skating, you smell some food from the restaurants up top in the mall," he said.

Yee skated as part of the men's singles figuring skating competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena. He placed 25th, one spot shy of making it to the next round. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

"In Barrie itself, I think there's eight different ice rinks in the whole city compared to four ice rinks in the whole of the country. It's just really meant for training in Barrie."

'His life is skating'

Yee ended up in Canada after meeting Mariposa coach Michael Hopfes while he was visiting Malaysia teaching skating.

"I saw him on the ice and he was a very talented boy and still is," said Hopfes. "His life is skating. That's what you see when he skates. His expressions. His dedication. If he falls, he gets up. He does it again."

After working with Hopfes in Malaysia, Yee came to Barrie in 2015 to try out training here. He said he knew by the second week that he would stay.

Yee and his Mariposa coach Michael Hopfes talk strategy on the sidelines at the Olympic Games. It is the first time either have been to the Olympics, an experience Yee calls 'very surreal.' (Submitted by Julian Yee)

The Olympics weren't even on Yee's radar when he first started in Barrie — the goal was to get to worlds. But as his performance improved, he upped his goals and ended up qualifying for men's singles figuring skating in Pyeongchang. He was also chosen to be Malaysia's flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies and a torch bearer pre-games.

"My goal was to really go out there, do my best, have no regrets and hopefully get a personal best," said Yee. He got that personal best at his event last week but was one skater away from making the next round, placing 25th.

He was still satisfied with the result.

Hopfes watches practice rinkside in his team Malaysia apparel at Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating. He accompanied Yee to the games. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

"I mean, going out there skating, stepping onto the Olympic ice, it was just a very amazing moment because it was just knowing that we've all been working so hard to get here and eventually having that moment of ice to yourself and to do your program, there was just something very memorable for me."

Achieving the 'impossible'

Janice Morgan, another one of the Mariposa coaches, watched the skate from back home. She coaches him on his spin technique.

Though there wasn't anything she could do just watching him on her TV, she still felt nervous and emotional for him. 

"I run his program so I know exactly what's coming and you're [saying to yourself] 'good good good.' And then he's doing his spins and then you're sitting there counting and .... I'm talking to him like he can hear me," she said.

Yee hoists the Malaysian flag at the opening ceremonies. He said it was a very touching moment for him: 'I think just walking out, looking at the audience around there, it was just an amazing feeling, you know … thinking in my head ‘Wow, this is actually happening right now.'' (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

"I was so proud of him and he just went out there and did his job and that's all you can ask especially at the Olympic Games and your first Olympic Games."

Next month, Yee will compete at the World Figure Skating Championships in Milan. He hopes his accomplishments can help get more people into figure skating in Malaysia — a country still coming to terms with its newfound winter status.

Yee poses with his coach Hopfes at the Pyeongchang Games. Hopfes said Yee is a special young man: 'When you see him skate, there’s some energy coming and it’s kind of transferring to the audience.' (Submitted by Julian Yee)

"It's a surprise to a lot of people back home I would say. Like no one would ever think that Malaysia would have made it to the Winter Olympics," he said. His sole teammate is alpine skier Jeffrey Webb, who trained in the U.S.

"I think once they knew about us being there, everybody was very supportive and they were just so happy to see Malaysia achieving many things that people would think is impossible."

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter for Ontario, primarily serving the province's local radio shows. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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