Julian Yee: "I never knew I would make it this far"

October 24, 2019
By Reut Golinsky
Photo © Joy Geurts, Mireille Geurts, Reut Golinsky

Five-time Malaysian senior national champion Julian Yee was one of the heroes at the 2018 Winter Olympics, being the first ever Malaysian figure skater to qualify for the Games. He was also the first Malaysian to reach the free skate at Four Continents Championships and before that the first Malaysian to obtain the qualifying scores for the World Junior Championships.
We met at the Nebelhorn Trophy before his short program practice and started our talk from those "firsts" in his life.

While reading about you before our talk I noticed that you have a lot of "firsts" in your biography: you were the first Malaysian skater achieving a lot of things, including becoming an Olympian. Being first at something is usually very hard. Which of those "firsts" was the hardest for you?

The most difficult "first" in my career was obviously to qualify for the Olympics. But maybe even before that, the first time I had to qualify for the Junior Worlds. In season 2011/12 the system was different. You went to the Junior Worlds and there you had to qualify to make it to the short program, so people did the free skate, the short program and the free skate again. One season later the rules have changed, and everybody had to qualify based on the technical score. And to get that score was really difficult. The first competition where I tried that was Asian Trophy. I actually did the wrong elements - at that time we were still very new, so I didn't know much and I did a beautiful triple toe at the end of the program, landed that jump but it didn't count, because we didn't read the rules properly, we didn't know that you can't repeat three different triples in the program. That jump had no value and I didn't get the points. OK, no problem, we had another competition planned; unfortunately, there I didn't do as well so I didn't get the points. Then we tried another one and I was very close, I think about one point away. Eventually at the last competition we signed up to - at the previous competition, the minute the results came out and I knew that I didn't get the score we signed up for this one - I finally got it. That was at "Skate Helena" in Serbia. Wow, it was a long process, just to get this score for the Junior Worlds...

So it's just the stages that I had to go through to qualify for each competition. After that the Four Continents was not a problem already, and then it was the score for the Worlds. But it wasn't as difficult as getting that junior score at that time. It could be because my level wasn't that good yet. Anyway, when we came to the senior [level] it was a little bit easier.

You're a very young person, but I wonder if sometimes you look back and say: "Wow, I did all this!" Or do you prefer to look only forward?

Every now and then I look back and see how far I've come, considering the fact that I never knew I would make it this far! My mindset was always "one step at a time" - first Junior Worlds, then Four Continents, and then... I remember at Junior Worlds when we got the score I was thinking: "There's no way I'm going to make the senior Worlds, because that's so difficult." And then a few years later I was lucky enough to get it. So looking back now it seems a bit funny because it was always "there's no way we're going to make it", always thinking that I'm not good enough but eventually I was lucky enough to get [to the next step].

Well, now you know that you're good enough, right?

(smiles) Well, there's always room for improvement, this sport is constantly growing and developing, every skater is improving as well so it's not easy to always keep up and as the years go by it gets more and more difficult.

If I was asked to choose a highlight of your career, I would choose two, and I wonder if they are the same for you. The first one is definitely you competing at the Olympics, having a brilliant performance of your short program and not qualifying for the free just because the field was so deep. And the second, of course, is Skate America 2018, where you were third after the short program.

Yeah, that was a big surprise. That Skate America was one of the most surprising and exciting events for me, especially the short program; the free skate not so much. After the short the expectations were too high. I felt: "Oh my god, I don't know if I can keep up with this". And there were a few mistakes, with putting in the quad again, which was still not very consistent. If I had landed it, it would have been great, but if not... It was a risk we took and we just have to learn from it. But with the short I was not expecting the third place finish! After the draw they asked me to stay for the press conference and I was: "What?! Oh, OK!" It was an interesting experience. (smiles)

But I think the biggest highlight was actually here, at Nebelhorn Trophy (2017, when it was an Olympic qualifier - ed). I was working towards this competition, my goal was to qualify for the Games, and this was the competition where I would make it or not. And the fact that performance-wise it was good, even though there were some small mistakes, was very relieving; for me that was I think just as good as the Olympics. Going into the Games my mindset was: "Okay I've really made it, if I get to the free skate that's great, if I don't make it, for me it's still acceptable, I've already come this far and we can't have everything in our lives." And the performance at the Olympics was great. But the thing about the Olympics is that it's the best of the best [who compete] and everyone's giving their 100%, someone wins and someone has to lose.

I indeed noticed that you love to come to Nebelhorn Trophy, it's your fourth time here.

It's always great to come here and the village is so beautiful.
The first time we came was because we read about the Olympic qualifiers, so we decided: let's give it a try and see how it goes. The year after that: OK, it looks more realistic now that I can qualify. Furthermore my coach (Michael Hopfes) is German, this is where he used to train. So it's always great [coming] with him, because he likes to show us around. And the competition itself is also always great here.

At some point, a few years ago, you defined getting to Olympics as your ultimate goal. You achieved it, what is your next big goal now?

I think it's still a step by step [approach] but for me the next goal is to develop myself within the sport, and not necessarily just as a competitor but also as a coach - because I'm also coaching right now - and to develop the sport as a whole back home in Malaysia, in Southeast Asia.

Let's talk indeed about your Skating Academy, I'd like to know more about it. But first, your site mentions that you are "Canadian NCCP Certified Coach". What does it mean? And why did you need that?

NCCP means National Certified Coaching Program, you need to be certified by Skate Canada to be able to coach in Canada, especially to coach local Canadian skaters. Every Canadian coach has this license, because there are so many skaters and coaches in Canada, they need regulations. There's no exception for me even though I got to Olympics, everyone is supposed to go through the same process. I did this certification program, passed all the levels and now I can teach.
I'm studying management in university in Canada, but I also wanted to work part-time. Back home in Malaysia we haven't established something like that yet, so I figured that's a good thing to have, it's good to start somewhere, to have something to show, that you've done this and this.

And, for example, if you want to work in Europe will it still count?

As far as I know every country has its own system but I guess it really depends on the ice rink and the rules of the federation?

OK, back to your Skating Academy, how does it function? Your site mentions you as a head coach but also as the only coach.

Right now it's maybe more of a "floating" Academy. I have guest coaches coming in from Canada or US to do workshops in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, while I'm the only permanent coach. Until I can establish a bigger Academy with a proper home rink, then I can hire more permanent coaches.

I remember that you yourself were training in malls?

Yes, the rinks are still all in shopping malls, I work with those ice rinks back home to get the ice and then I invite coaches to do the camps. Currently these are coaches from Canada, people from my rink, later we'll see if we need more experts in other areas. It's still ongoing, only starting off. We had a Christmas camp last year with coaches from Canada, my coach and another coach, this year we will have the same camp again. For the summer I invited some skaters to Canada, mainly because in Canada there's a huge program put by the rink I train at, especially for summer training. And I think it's very beneficial for our skaters. This year we had about five skaters from Malaysia; it's a small start but hopefully the word is spread. The only concern is the distance from Malaysia to Canada; it's very far, so not many people could make it with the time, with the budget.

Yes, some other country - China maybe? - could be closer...

Probably China is closer. But every country has their own different system of training. Personally, I like the way I train with the Canadian system, more specifically my rink's system. So it depends on your preference as well.

When you are busy with your season, and studies, and coaching in Canada, what happens to your Academy?

There are local coaches there, they don't work under me, but we collaborate. I visit them as a guest coach. I look at the kids, see how they can develop, we make a plan for them and hopefully they can keep moving forward.

And what ages are the kids?

From seven years old all the way up to about seventeen, it's a big range. It depends on their level and their age and we see how we can make the best of it, how to maximise what they can do and push as far as they can.

After your breakthrough at the Olympics do you feel you're getting more support from your federation, country or Ministry of Sports?

You see, figure skating is not a core sport in Malaysia; not, for example, like badminton or swimming, not like summer sports. Winter sports are not that famous, so they don't get much attention and focus. Attention always goes up during the Olympics but afterwards it decreases again. So during the Olympics, at that moment, it was huge - newspaper after newspaper, but then it went down. That's normal for any news, they always peak and then descend and then something else comes up. So right now it's already downwards, there isn't much attention, and it's going to get back to almost zero again. I think we just have to expect that and work with what we have.

I do hope they won't just sit and say: "Well, he did it once, he'll do it again on his own." And I hope they won't be just getting credit for the work you're doing.

I think that happens to a lot of different sports in a lot of different countries. Usually the athlete is the one that has to put 110% if he really wants it. That's how it is in life. I'm not expecting outside support. You need to have the mindset that you mainly have to try it on your own and if there's support, it's great, it helps you a lot, but if not, you just need to keep pushing.

Let's move to your own skating. I understand that you are still staying full time in Canada.

Yes, I'm still in Canada, doing university, training and part-time coaching, trying to juggle all this. I work with the same team of coaches. It's great working with them, I love it.

You kept your free skate from the previous season. Is it the same program or did you change some elements?

We always have a plan A/plan B kind of thing, more or less it will be similar to the last season, but we can switch it depending on the competition, competitors, strategies and all that.
And my new short program is to "Everglow" by Coldplay, I think it's a beautiful song, I really liked it ever since I heard it the first time.

Your exhibition programs are always fan favourites. Do you have something special prepared for this season?

It's nothing as big as the ones in the previous years but it's a different idea, a different take on music. I always like to look for various ways to entertain people; also, for me personally it's important that an exhibition program will be easy to understand. Because people who are watching it might not be those who know skating, so there must be a story in it or something like that. You'll see.

Can't wait! All these ideas do they just come to you naturally?

Yes and no. (smiles) Sometimes yes, sometimes I sit down and think for a very long time: "What can I do that is disparate but also doable, without special equipment, using props that are easy to find?" So sometimes it's difficult to generate these ideas.

The skating part of our talk is over, but I always love to finish an interview with a few off-ice questions, just for fans to learn something about you as a person. Where do you keep your medals?

I keep them at home, in Malaysia, in a cabinet where all the medals are. The important ones are actually in a safe.

Three things you always have with you.

My phone, my wallet and... I would say my watch.

The song you listen to before the competition.

It depends on my mood. If I feel like I want to relax, I have a calmer playlist, "Coldplay" for example. And if I want to be more energetic then it's my workout playlist which consists of all kinds of songs, like rock and roll, for example.

Your favourite movie or TV show?

My favourite TV show is "Hawaii Five-0", it's an old show and they made a new version of it. It's an action police show.

Your favourite place to compete.

I like Oberstdorf a lot. And if not Oberstdorf I guess it would be Japan, because of the atmosphere there and how they organise the competition. They have their special way of doing it and it's amazing.

Your favorite country to travel to.

I think Japan once again. Before I started competing internationally I used to go to Japan every year with my family for ski and snowboarding trips. So, yeah, I really enjoyed Japan.

Place you haven't visited yet but really want to.

You know, I have not visited Great Britain, London. I've only been at the airport and that's it. I think it would be quite nice to visit there.

When were you the happiest?

When I was at the Olympics.

Julian will be competing at 2019 Skate Canada International this weekend. We're wishing him to have good skates in Kelowna (and hoping he'll be chosen to perform his new exhibition program during the gala!)

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