by Joseph Pimentel/AJPress
SHE may be one of the Philippines best hopes for a gold medal in the 2010 or 2014 Winter Olympics or a possible future Miss Philippines contender, but Anna Isabel “Issai” Villafuerte will try to do the unthinkable as she works her way up the amateur ice skating totem pole.
Having a Filipino in the winter Olympics may sound like an oxymoron given that the Philippines is known more for it’s tropical climate than frigid weather. However, from skating on slushy, chopped ice in the Philippines to a pristine, spotless surface in the US, the 13-year-old Issai will look to become an Olympic hopeful for the Philippines come the next Winter Olympics slated for Vancouver, Canada in 2010 or Sochi, Russia in 2014.
And she’s well on her way.
Last year, Issai became the first Philippine-born ice skater to qualify to compete in the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) sanctioned competitive events. She qualified last year after undergoing a series of rigorous tests conducted by the USFSA.
Most ice skaters in the Philippines compete on a recreational level. The US and world has a stricter standard. An ice skater looking to compete in an Olympic/or USFSA event must pass a stringent test to compete in qualifying competitions. Issai performed well enough to pass.
This year was her first year of competitive events and she surprised many when she arrived to the US in June and nearly swept the competition during her very first USFSA event.
Issai bagged three gold, a silver and bronze medal at the Broadmoor Open in Colorado Springs, Colorado last June 24-28. She topped the seven other competitors in freestyle, artistic, and spin events, according to her US Ice Skating Coach Ted Domingo. “We were all surprised,” said Fe Villafuerte, the mother. “We didn’t expect it.” Domingo did.
“I’m not surprised,” he said.
“We had two good weeks of training [leading] up to the event. We’ve been preparing and practicing for five to six hours a day.” Issai said that she too was surprised since prior to the Broadmoor Open, she didn’t perform very well in a different recreational competition.
“It [the Broadmoor Open] supposed to be the hardest and most important one,” she said. “I was competing against seven people. It was really tough. They were all so good and they landed everything. I was so nervous but I’m glad I did well.”
Issai hails from Bicol, Philippines and is the granddaughter of Camarines Sur Congressman Luis Villafuerte. She currently attends a British School in Manila, according to Fe.
Issai learned how to ice skate at the age of 8. Accompanying her mother to SM Mega Mall in Manila, Issai grew tired of walking from store to store as her mother shopped. She found solace in the Mall’s ice skating rink – one of a few places on the island to have such a venue.
“It just started out as a hobby,” said Issai. “Something to do.” Pretty soon, she couldn’t get enough of the ice.
“She was begging me to go shopping so she could skate,” said Fe.
Fe started to take her to local mall competitions. In 2003, Issai picked up her first medal, a bronze, at an SM Southmall sponsored event. She momentarily quit to focus on school but picked up her skates again three years later.
In 2006, Issai’s seriousness of the sport began to grow. She was among the 1,000 competitors from 25 different countries and one of 200 from the Philippines to compete in the Skate Asia event at the World Ice Arena in Shenzhen, China.
At that event, Issai captured four gold medals, one silver medal and two bronzes.
Momentum began to build. She continued to rack up medals in other ice skating events in Guangdong, China, and in Bandung, Indonesia and she placed second runner up in an Ice Princess 2006 competition in the Philippines.
The next year, Issai picked up eight gold medals in her skill level at the 2007 Ice Skating Institute (ISI) Skate Beijing competition.
The only time she didn’t medal in a competition was when she first arrived to the US for the ISI World Recreational championship held in Chicago, IL. Issai had a difficult time adjusting to the ice surface.
“In Manila, the skating rink has a lot of bumps and sometimes holes,” she said. “They only clean it every three or four hours. But when I got here, they clean it every hour. I couldn’t believe how nice the ice looked.”
The ice was so pristine in Chicago that initially, Issai was apprehensive to skate fearing that the ice was too slick and her skates were too sharp, according to her mother.
“You have to go to the Philippines to understand,” said Fe, jokingly.
Fe added that it’s been a surprising two years. She never expected her youngest daughter of eight to be a competitive ice skater. She has accompanied Fe in all of her ice skating tournaments and she has not only seen her grow in experience on the ice but also physically grow “three to four inches.”
“I want her to win a Miss Philippines title,” said Fe. “She has the height and looks.”
That’ll have to wait.
Now standing with a svelte 5’7″ frame, Issai and her coaches know tat she still has a long way to go before being the first Filipino born ice skater to compete in a winter Olympics.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Albert Aguilar, Issai’s ice skating coach in the Philippines. “We can do it probably in 2014 Olympics. We really have to work hard for it but with her determination and support from her mom and family, maybe we can achieve it.”
If not, she could always try Miss Philippines.