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Junio feels for parents' homeland in wake of typhoon

The Canadian Press

11/22/2013 9:08:58 AM

CALGARY -- Gilmore Junio hopes the people who follow his speedskating career in typhoon-ravaged Philippines feel their spirits lift after his recent gold medal.

The Filipino-Canadian won the first World Cup gold medal of his career in the 500 metres last week in Salt Lake City, Utah. His parents Gino and Julie emigrated from the Philippines to Canada in the 1970s. Junio was born and raised in Calgary.

Hundreds were killed and millions left homeless when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines earlier this month. Junio says the disaster did not directly impact his family's relatives. He is sponsored, however, by the Philippine telecommunications company PLDT.

So after winning his gold, Junio sent a message to the company acknowledging his victory, but also conveying his best wishes for anyone affected by the typhoon.

"I kept it pretty brief on my success and said it was a great confidence booster going towards the Olympics, but my thoughts and prayers went out to all families," Junio said.

"Maybe not a lot of Filipinos know what speedskating is, but maybe just having an athlete they hear has won a gold medal on the World Cup circuit, maybe they can kind of be excited despite the tragedy and find something to rally around for the next couple of months."

The 23-year-old's gold was his second career World Cup medal after winning a silver during the 2012-13 season.

Along with Edmonton's Jamie Gregg, who has earned a pair of World Cup bronze in the 500 already this season, the two men are medal threats at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in February.

The Philippines is an island country in the western Pacific Ocean. No athletes from the country competed in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C., so Philippine media coverage of the Games concentrated on Filipino-American speed skater J.R. Celski and figure skater Amanda Evora.

"My dad watches a lot of the Filipino channel and those two were always on the news," Junio said. "For Filipinos to have winter athletes to rally around at Olympic time, it's special for them.

"They're really big on their sports too," he continued, pointing out that boxer Manny Pacquiao is so beloved there, he was elected to political office.

Junio's sponsorship deal with PLDT is a unique story on its own. Junio did it with the help of Kevin Jagger, an Vancouver investment banker so inspired by the 2010 Games he quit his job to become a speedskater.

Jagger has yet to make the national team, but still attracted sponsorship to his quest with his business and marketing smarts. Jagger worked with Junio on building a sponsorship proposal.

They highlighted his unique heritage in the sport with the slogan "fastest Filipino on ice."

""We basically took that story and put a deck (proposal) together saying that over 100 metres, Gil is faster than Usain Bolt," Jagger said. "We put that deck together and sent that out to PLDT.

"They loved it and they loved the idea. Even though he competes for Canada, he's very proud of his Filipino heritage. That's someone they can call their own. They have a huge employee base so we basically pitched it around an employee morale story.

"It speaks to the importance of having social media and blogging and having a website where he can effectively share his story and tell it across the ocean."

It isn't NHL or NBA money, but the sponsorship's value is in the double digits. That's a significant amount to athletes who often believe they can't begin to engage a company's interest without an Olympic gold medal around their necks.

"It's a pretty big amount compared to what I'm used to," Junio said. "Especially with the Olympics this year, you want to make sure you're doing everything right buying supplements and vitamins and paying for extras.

"We have a yoga core class so paying for that and equipment just piles up. To be able to just pay for that stuff and have the financial stresses off me . . . . you kind of have no more excuses."

Junio has twice travelled to the Philippines and most recently in 2011 to visit his father's relatives. Interestingly, Jagger also helped Junio parlay his "born-and-raised Calgarian" side into attracting sponsorship from the Calgary software company Aclaro.

"On the sponsorship side, you won't get far with a generic deck," Jagger said. "Each pitch has been highly customized. It's always genuine, but you're pitching different things."

Junio played hockey from age seven to 13. He realized he might not be big enough to pursue the sport at a high level when the opposing team had current six-foot-eight Buffalo Sabres defenceman Tyler Myers on it.

With some gentle nudging from Gino, he attended a speedskating talent identification camp at the Olympic Oval. Junior started out in short track, but broke two bones in his back just prior to the junior world championships at age 19.

He switched to long track as a means of training safely during his comeback and stayed with it. Junio tied for gold in Salt Lake City with Japan's Joji Kato, the Olympic bronze medallist in 2010, as the two men posted identical times.

"Having the gold with one of the fastest times I've ever skated, that in itself gives me a lot of confidence that if I execute my plan right and really hone in on that day, I could contend to bring home a medal," Junio said.

"Looking to Sochi, I just have to execute on the days I compete and at the Olympic trials. The Olympic trials come first."