Skating to the Top with Julian Yee

09 July 2018

After making history as the first Malaysian to compete at the Winter Olympics, Julian Yee is aiming to represent the country again in 2022.

In 2001, four-year-old Julian Yee put on his first pair of ice skates when his mother, Irene Cheow signed the entire family up for a group package at Sunway Pyramid Ice. No one could imagine that years later that playful young boy would end up becoming the first Malaysian to represent the country at the Winter Olympics.

Although Yee started competing recreationally when he was five years old, it was only when he turned 12 that he saw his potential in pursuing figure skating as a career. In 2010, he made the switch to competitive skating and joined the ISU Junior Grand Prix the following year.

Yee with his mother and manager, Irene Cheow.

"It was my first time at such a big scale competition," he recalls.

"It really threw me off. I was up against powerhouses from USA, Canada, Japan and China. The levels are so different. I think it's because of the lack of experience we have. It’s still a very new sport in Malaysia. We [Malaysia] only got our International Skating Union membership eight years ago whereas the USA has already celebrated their 100th anniversary. That's a huge gap."

Yee joins a minimum of seven competitions a year and he's had his fair share of triumphs and failures. Even though he has set the benchmark in Malaysia, he believes that there is still a lot to improve on. In 2015, he moved to Canada to train with German coach Michael Hopfes after being under the wings of his former coach Harry Janto Leo for ten years.

"Harry has given me as much as he could," Yee says.

"It just came to a point where I needed more to be able to qualify for the Olympics. It was a wise decision to go out and seek different expertise. Over here I worked with Harry alone, but in Canada I work with a main coach and other coaches as well."

Leo, who is the head coach at Sunway Pyramid Ice and the current president of the Ice Skating Institute of Asia, agrees that Malaysia still has a lot of limitations when it comes to ice sports. Besides not having a proper training facility, he feels that there is a lack of growth in mindset and quality leadership amongst Malaysians.

"I think we have a lot of potential, but we need great local leaders to move winter sports in the right direction," Leo says.

Harry Janto Leo, Yee’s former coach and current president of the Ice Skating Institute of Asia.

"If we want to produce more Julians in the future, we have to learn from the rest of the world and move forward together. If not we will be stuck in the same loop for the next few decades."

Besides changing the coaching method at Sunway Pyramid Ice and striving to develop more quality coaches in Malaysia, Leo also oversees 28 annual competitions across Asia. He believes that it's important for everyone in the ecosystem to put aside their egos and work together to make ice sports a sustainable career option.
Cheow, who has been Yee's manager since day one, feels that parents need to be more informed about the inner workings of the sports. When she first started managing her son's career, she was clueless about everything and had no one to turn to for guidance.

"Back then figure skating in Malaysia was so new," Cheow says.

"There were no records for us to look at and nobody to teach me how things were done. I had to rely a lot on doing research online. I had to study how they did things overseas. Wherever Julian was competing abroad, I would always ask people a lot of questions and learn as much as I could."

Although a lot of sacrifices have been made to advance Yee's career, both mother and son agree that it was worth persevering through the tough times. Being able to hold the Malaysian flag during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang was a surreal moment that Yee hopes to repeat in 2022.

While waiting for next season’s calendar of events to be announced, Yee is learning how to juggle both university and his sports career. He still trains five days a week, at least three hours on ice and an hour off ice (cardio, conditioning and dance).

Cheow has been Yee’s manager since day one.

"We can only plan for the future, but we don't know what's going to happen," Yee says.

"Right now I'm just taking it step by step. I'm focused on getting my world ranking up. The last time I checked I was at number 41. I really do hope that more Malaysian athletes can compete internationally. At the moment it's still the same few people. We have a lot of talent and I hope that the younger generation will be able to push through and go far."

Besides figure skating, other ice sports such as short track speed skating and ice hockey have also been gaining popularity in Malaysia. Cheow is hopeful that ice curling will be added into the list of winter sports available in the country.

"Skating is not the only way to get to the Olympics," Cheow says. "Besides competing, there are so many other opportunities like coaching, judging or becoming a technical specialist.”

“The doors are open now and we need to grab the moment. Hopefully we will be able to send more than one representative from Malaysia to the Winter Olympics every four years. Hopefully in two generations to come, Malaysia will be able to make it to the podium.”

By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

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