Meet the Philippines’ first athlete in the world winter university games

Published December 25, 2020, 11:34 AM

by Pao Vergara

From beating the heat to representing the country, figure skater Misha Fabian is a tropical storm in a winter wonderland

It was the early 2000s. Smartphones were but a sci-fi concept, traffic from Makati to QC moved, and the just-launched ice rink at a major mall in Mandaluyong was a novelty for many weekenders.

Naturally, families would often rent the rink to throw birthday parties for their children, inviting the children’s friends. Mikayla Shalom “Misha” Fabian was one wide-eyed six-year-old among many, stunned by the expanse of ice and accompanying temperature.

Stores were shuttering, the floor was being tidied of party streamers, and the tension among clerks and waiters was high, as work talk turned to banter. Still, young Misha continued gliding through the ice, having nailed the basics of balance.

The next day was Monday, and when Misha realized her mother had a business meeting at a café situated inside the same mall, she tugged at mom’s skirt, the skating rink reflected in her pleading eyes.

The annually popular “White Christmas,” feels a bit off if sung in the Philippines, and we could rework the lyrics as “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones we never knew.” For Misha, however, this tropic pipe dream came true in 2019 when she represented the Philippines in the Winter Universaide in Krasnoyarsk, Russia.

In truth, Christmas was long over, but it was definitely white—the games were held from March 2 to 12 that year. In the Philippines, the familiar heat reared its head as the Amihan bowed out, yet a thousand miles north in the heart of Siberia, winter still held sway over a tentative spring.

The dream almost didn’t happen, however, as shortly after Misha discovered ice skating, she was diagnosed with primary complex and had to avoid the frigid rink for years. During this period, she discovered other hobbies and sports, like singing, painting, basketball, and running.

Almost four years since her diagnosis, her sickness healed, and during a visit to the Chelsea Piers rink in New York, she grasped her first pair of “real” skates, a gift from her parents.

Today, amid a pandemic and extended quarantine, Misha’s room is a makeshift rink, furniture hugging the walls, her ice skates replaced by roller blades. She’s able to jump in them, but so far “spinning is a different thing altogether.”

She recalls a time when staying on her feet on the ice was her biggest achievement. For the nth time in those early years, six-year-old Misha landed on the ice. Back pockets soggy, her preschool friends had moved on to other games, the birthday party ongoing. Falling, she realized even then, young as she was, was a skater’s first lesson. There was a proper way to fall, her instructor told her, to make it look like a seamless transition.

Looking back to that first kiss with the ice, she expounds, “right after being taught how to fall, I was taught how to get up. I was always amazed at how skaters who suffered a terrible fall during training or performance would get back up almost instantly and pick up where they left off. I realize now that it’s because they were trained to do that from day one.”

The Universaide is the largest sporting event next to the Olympics. Like the latter, the former has both summer and winter editions. Eligible athletes are enrolled university and polytechnic students aged 17 to 25. The student-focused event often serves as a springboard for the Olympics.

Given its eligibility requirements, participation is a balancing act regardless of sport, as the demands of school life inform the training schedules of all athletes.

The 2019 winter games saw the highest amount so far of participating countries overall. The Philippines wasn’t the only non-wintry country sending delegates. Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico also sent athletes.

Once again, Misha had fallen, but this time, it was a life-changing fall, not on the ice, but for it. Her transition from recreational weekend warrior to competitive, daily-training skater was abrupt. She initially never planned it to go this way. Back on the ice, she was content to glide on Saturdays, especially as her parents supported it. At this point, the tables turned: She asked her mom to never let her compete.

But when she finished her first full routine in front of an audience to Lea Salonga’s “The Journey,” she realized that performing, not just skating, was fun, too.

Immediately after Misha confirmed her intentions with her coaches and parents, they set to work. Manila traffic was worsening, and she learned how to do homework in the car. The Mandaluyong rink had closed, and she learned how to anticipate travel time to the Metro’s remaining ice rink in Pasay. Off the ice, she trains thrice a week in the gym to build strength, balance, and agility.

Her friends today know she’s hard to book, but they understand… What are friends for?

Also, when neither in the gym nor on the ice, Misha attends adult ballet and contemporary dance classes to hone her skating skills.

Competing figure skaters rack up points on two categories: technical elements, essentially the athletic aspect of skating, and program components, how well one interprets the music, creates seamless transitions, well up to one’s dress and facial expressions.

‘Right after being taught how to fall, I was taught how to get up. I was always amazed at how skaters who suffered a terrible fall during training or performance would get back up almost instantly and pick up where they left off. I realize now that it’s because they were trained to do that from day one.’

Misha, also a theater actress who eventually took on major roles in productions, shares that skating “allows me to combine sports and the arts. I enjoy the challenge that it presents—the perfect balance between solid technique and artistry.”

Today, Misha envisions a life beyond skating. She’s slowly building a professional writing portfolio while taking online classes in digital marketing. The 20something is in a steady relationship with her partner and an even steadier relationship with her church group, while as music and theater continue as unjealous lovers.

PASSION SKATING Misha on ice, doing what she loves

Balance is nothing new to Misha whose first lesson was falling.

Even now, the Siberian tundra appears to her as a dreamscape—a white desert speckled by evergreen patches slowly revealing more details as the plane descends—but Misha is asleep, her hair disheveled. Meanwhile, the final version of her thesis paper sits in her professor’s cubbyhole back in Quezon City. 

This routine is nothing new, papers with her teachers before flights, finishing her parts in a group project first: She’s represented the Philippines in regional and junior tournaments and trainings in places like Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, and most notably in junior-level tourneys in Hong Kong.

Hours later since touchdown in that dreamscape of an experience in her young life, her hair done and makeup set, she smiles at dozens of flashing cameras. Standing slightly behind and flanking her are her parents in Philippine team jackets—her spin, jump, and edge coaches watch from back home and her main coach is still in transit. Her hands grasp the Philippine flag, whipping through winter air. For her, real as it was in 2019, it having come true in 2019, this is still a dream.

Misha recalls that “a lot of delegates were surprised to see that the Philippines was at the competition, and they approached to ask questions about the country and what it was like to skate here. Some were even surprised that we had ice rinks. It was like telling the world “‘Hey, we exist!’ in the coolest way possible.”

So, yes, Misha is still dreaming

Photos from Misha Fabian’s social media account.

 
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