When Julian Zhi Jie Yee tagged along with his mother and older brothers to a mall ice rink in Malaysia years ago he had no clue that one day he would become the first Malaysian figure skater to compete at Olympic Winter Games. Yee and Alpine skier Jeffrey Webb are even the first athletes to represent Malaysia at Olympic Winter Games in history.
“It is real now. It is mind-blowing to see how everything is. I’ve been to the South East Asian Games but that is nothing compared to this. It’s huge, everything is just ten times bigger,” Julian said after arriving in Gangneung for the Olympic Winter Games.
It all started very modestly. Julian’s mother once fell in love with the sport and took her sons to figure skating lessons. “My mother went to the mall one day and saw someone skating. She thought, I want to try that too, so she brought me and my brothers to the rink one day, as a hobby. We just started skating recreationally and then it became more and more throughout the years. My mother has a huge passion for skating, she loves the sport. It is something that grew on her. We all started learning together,” Julian recalled.
First his older brother Ryan started to compete internationally and was on the first Malaysian team at the ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships 2011 that coincidentally took place in Gangneung. One year later Julian went to the World Junior Championships and finished 20th in the Preliminary Round. Six years later he makeds his Olympic debut.
“I never really thought I’m getting to the Olympics. I remember before I went to Junior Worlds I was thinking, maybe that is enough, we don’t need to get to Worlds, that’s maybe too much. After then it was Four Continents, Worlds – as we got closer we realized it is possible to qualify for the Olympics,” Julian said.
He booked his ticket for the trip to PyeongChang in Oberstdorf at the Olympic Qualifying Competition Nebelhorn Trophy last fall. “Even if Malaysia is a tropical country we are capable of achieving something in (winter sports). I am really proud of my country. We come from a developing nation, not just skating, but Malaysia in general is still a developing nation. To bring it to the Olympic stage is a new milestone for us,” said Julian. When he qualified for the Olympic Games, Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak even tweeted his congratulations.
About six years ago Yee met his coach of today, German Michael Hopfes, who came to Malaysia to judge as a technical specialist and coaches in Canada. Meanwhile, Julian has moved to Barrie in Canada to train full-time with Hopfes. Together, they worked on achieving their goal. “I remember when I first watched the Winter Games. We sort of had an idea trying to qualify for it and we were just working towards it, taking one step at a time,” Julian recalled.
“When I started skating, I had really bad skating skills. The cross-overs were very bad, my extension was horrible and I got a lot of feedback from judges saying ‘improve your skating skills’, ‘get faster, stronger cross cuts’, ‘more extensions’ and that was my weakest point. I spent a lot of time working on skating skills, dance, movements, just to make sure it was balanced out,” Julian, who studies business management but took a gap year to focus on his Olympic dream, said.
For a while, Julian was even doing figure skating and short track speed skating, but eventually decided on figure skating, because he wants to entertain people. He also tried curling, ice hockey and even skiing. “I personally like winter sports more than summer sports. Maybe because it is so hot in Malaysia,” the 20-year-old joked.
Now he can’t imagine his life without figure skating. “I think the moment when we are able to glide on the ice feels like we are grounded, even if it is on the ice. It feels this is where we belong. It means so much in our life that we can’t get away from it,” he said.
At the Gangneung Ice Arena, Julian wears proudly the Malaysian team outfit, black with orange stripes. “Our national animal is the Malayan tiger. So our country decided to adopt that. We want to be as fierce as a tiger, as ferocious and brave,” he explained.