Cape Town - “The road is long, with many a winding turn.”
The lyrics from the Hollies' classic 1969 hit He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother ring true today for a young figure skater from Cape Town.
Matthew Samuels has had to overcome immense hurdles in pursuit of an ambitious dream to compete at a Winter Olympics. And he's on the verge of making it a reality.
The 23-year-old has one last shot at reaching next year's Beijing Games. The final qualifying event, The Nebelhorn Trophy, takes place in Germany next week.
Right now Samuels is in Italy, hard at work preparing for that competition. Speaking to Weekend Argus from Bergamo, he said: "The experience has been really great. I've been learning so much. The international community has really opened up and helped guide me through these last few competitions and training days before the Olympic qualifiers. There's still a lot I need to improve on before I am ready to take that big step."
Samuels is under no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead. "It's very tough this year (to qualify for the Olympics). Because of Covid-19 they have taken some (qualifying) spots away to make the Olympics a bit smaller. And also, I wasn't able to go to the World Championships where most people qualify. Now there are only six spots left."
It's been a difficult journey to this point. Lockdown measures back home in the Cape meant little training time. Plus, Samuels needed to be ranked number one in the country in order to represent South Africa in Germany.
He is currently the four-time national champion in the men's senior category. There was also the issue of money. Samuels's trip has been paid for almost entirely by friends and family who contributed towards his BackaBuddy campaign.
Samuels' mother, Suzette, led the fundraising efforts.
Ice skating is an expensive sport. Coaching fees are exorbitant at around R7 000 a month. Competitors also have to dig deep for equipment. Try this on for size; boots and blades, which need to be replaced regularly, cost in excess of R10 500.
"Lots of people have told me it is almost impossible to get to where I want to be with the equipment I have. Skaters here in Europe change their boots every two to three months. I've had my pair of boots for eight months and I am about to try and qualify for the Winter Olympics," said Samuels.
"Not only that, I don't have a coach teaching me to do pole harness. And that is how a lot of the skaters learn the big jumps. I have to do it by myself. No harness to help protect me from falls. I just have to go for it. So, with all this, it becomes very difficult to stay positive and go for your dream."
Samuels' love affair with ice skating began in 2006, during a family trip to the mini-rink at GrandWest. His parents could not get him or his sister off the ice. That was the year Samuels started following the Winter Games on TV.
"I've always watched the legends skate. It's become a tradition now to watch every single Olympics. And it would only be right to complete that tradition by competing in it one day."
"My first attempt to qualify for the Winter Olympics, four years ago, didn't go as planned. I tore three ligaments in my foot and I wasn't mentally ready. I was 19 years old, definitely not ready to take on the world.
“But in the last year, I started believing I could really make it (to the Beijing 2022 Games). I landed a triple axle and everything changed. Even my association said, ’You have one of the biggest jumps in figure skating, and you should go for it.’"
His coach, Megan Allely Painczyk, could not be prouder. "He has matured over the years and has learned how to manage himself in pressure situations. I have no doubt that Matthew will deliver a strong performance," she said.
Nick Walker from the Western Province branch of the South African Figure Skating Association added: "This is a big deal for Matthew as well as for Western Province and even South African figure skating. We are exceptionally proud of him for getting to this point.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing many international competitions to be cancelled over the past year, many top skaters from around the world are having to do this qualifier due to lack of opportunity during the pandemic.
“This makes the task of getting a top spot a lot more challenging this time around. But we are confident that Matthew will perform well as he is in good shape, and ready for this."
Samuels knows he'll have to deliver the performance of his life if he's to impress the judges enough to earn a ticket to the Games. The last South African figure skater to represent the nation at a Winter Olympics was Shirene Human, in 1998. Samuels had yet to be born then.