Bulanhagui: It is my chance to compete for my parents

By Jamie Blanchard
Figure Skaters Online

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Just one month after making the announcement that she will represent the Philippines, the birth place of her parents, in future competitions, Melissa Bulanhagui now holds a Filipino passport. With 1994 Olympic Champion Oksana Baiul by her side, Bulanhagui went to the Philippines Consulate General in New York on Oct. 14 to complete her paperwork.

She will make her debut at the Philippines National Championships in November with a goal of competing internationally after the 2011-12 season. Skating for Team USA, she won the silver medal at the 2005 North American Challenge Skate (Kansas) and the junior ladies title at 2006 Gardena Spring Trophy. On the 2006 Junior Grand Prix circuit, she was second in Romania, fourth in the Czech Republic and fourth in the Final. She placed fifth at JGP Bulgaria the following season. In 2008, she won the Italy event then placed ninth in  Belarus.

Bulanhagui talked with Figure Skaters Online about her decision to skate for the Philippines.

It is a really exciting time to be Melissa Bulanhagui. First, congratulations on your decision to represent Philippines.
Melissa: Thank you very much. I am very excited about the opportunity.

When did the idea to skate for the Philippines first come about? Was it something that you have always thought about?
Melissa: It’s not something that I have always thought about because I am American. I was born here. I have lived here. Ever since I was young, I have represented the United States, and I’m really proud of that. But I think skating for the U.S., I think that is something I did for myself. My parents are Filipino. They grew up in the Philippines. Skating for the Philippines, it is my chance to compete for them. It is a way to show my parents that I while I am so thankful for all of the great opportunities that I have had because they chose to come here, I am just as much Filipino as I am American. My parents always talked about me about one day competing for the Philippines. Back then, I just wanted to compete for Team USA and do as much as I could skating for this county. I feel like I did that with the medals I won over the years. Now is the perfect time to start doing what I can for the Philippines and my parents.

When it came time to notify U.S. Figure Skating that you were switching affiliations, did you have any reservations? Or was it an easy decision to make?

Melissa: I definitely did have some reservations. It’s not a decision that you can just make one morning. America is where I was born. I have never lived anywhere else. And I had so much help from U.S. Figure Skating throughout the years and I appreciate them so much. I loved working with U.S. Figure Skating. Skating for the Philippines though is going to give me new opportunities. But by leaving Team USA, I am losing all of my international points, and I had to think about that. I have been doing the Junior Grand Prix since I was 16 and I did some other internationals too. I’m not happy to lose those points but I am happy to have this new start. I am really happy with my decision.

You’re American but you mentioned both of your parents are actually from Philippines so you have always had some unofficial ties to that country. Did you grow up with a lot of Filipino traditions?
Melissa: Yes, both of my parents came to the United States from the Philippines. They are fluent in Tagalog, which is the language in the Philippines, and that language was always around me growing up. I speak and understand some of it but I wouldn’t say I am fluent at all. We also follow the Filipino culture for all of the holidays. My dad has a large family so it’s always a big Filipino gathering for the holidays. I would say being Filipino is a part of my everyday life but sometimes, it’s more than others.

Why did your parents come to the United States?
Melissa: My dad came to the United States first. He was the first of his family to come here. He just wanted to see America and he ended up in Burbank, Calif. My dad was here for a while and my mom was back home in the Philippines so they did the long distance thing. He got a job, created his business and really just got everything going. When he felt stable, my mom came here and they started a family not too long after. The rest is history I guess.

How did your parents react when you told them you’d be skating for Philippines?
Melissa: I can’t even begin to explain how excited they were when I told them, especially my mom. When I told her I was going to do Filipino Nationals, she was so happy. She bought her ticket to the Philippines right away. I still don’t have my ticket so I guess you know, at least one Bulanhagui will be there. [Laughs] I just want to make my parents proud more than anything. They have done so much for me. This is kind of my way to give back to them.

You’re making your debut at Philippines nationals in November. Have you ever traveled to the country before?
Melissa: This will be my second time going to the Philippines. I went there when I was really young, maybe six years old. I remember bits and pieces like I remember there was a typhoon. I remember playing in the rain. I remember it being really hot. I remember it being really beautiful there. I’m so excited to go back.

Do you still have a lot of family there?
Melissa: All of my parents’ family still lives in the Philippines. My aunts and uncles live there and my mom’s really close friends. I really hope they’ll all come out and see me skate.

Will you do any training in the Philippines or are you planning to stay based at the University of Delaware?
Melissa: I plan to stay at University of Delaware and continue to train there with the Ludingtons. Right now, the Philippines is still developing a skating program so there are not that many places where I could skate. I’m really hoping that skating gains popularity though and the opportunities grow.

Can you tell us a little bit about your programs?
Melissa: This year for my short program, I am doing an Egyptian disco program. I am using my Rachmaninov program from last year again for the long. My short is something that I am so comfortable with. I love taking on that character. I love the unique style. It’s a program that I can really get into. I can have a lot of fun. My long, well, it’s really out of my comfort zone because I am not a classical skater at all. I have always been more funky. I am really trying to be more classical though. Hopefully I can pull off the program a bit better than I did last season. I’m really trying to big improvements on style and transitions.

Back in June, you attempted the triple Axel in the short program at the Broadmoor Open. Is that still in the works?
Melissa: It’s definitely something that I’m going to continue working on. The consistency is not there so I won’t do it at nationals. This summer, I took some time off so I don’t think I will really be ready with it in November. It’s a goal though. It’s something I can do in practice and it’s something I want to do in competition. It will get there but it’s not there yet.

Skating is just starting to develop in the Philippines so you’re kind of the pioneer. What goals have you made for yourself for nationals?
Melissa: I definitely want to skate two solid programs, a strong short and a strong long. I really want to work on the performance aspect. When I introduce skating to some of these people who have never seen it before, I want them to think skating is so fun to watch. I have to really give a performance to do that I think. Looking past nationals, I want to build the figure skating program there. Hopefully after the crowd watches me and the other skaters, they want to give skating a try. It would be great if one day skaters from the Philippines were right up there with China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. Every program has to start some place.

You’re not able to officially start skating for the Philippines until the 2012-13 season. What will you do after 2011 nationals since the Four Continents Championship and the World Championship are not an option?
Melissa: You know, I am kind of excited to have time after nationals to really work on my consistency. I could really use the time to get my triple Axel ready for competition and get a triple-triple under my belt. I can only get those with time. I also really, really need to work on the style of my skating. I need to make everything better because I know I’m not as good as I can be. In the U.S., there are summer competitions, then Regionals, then sectionals, then nationals and then internationals. I feel like you really are primarily working on your stamina and peaking at the right time. You never have a lot of time to work on what you need to work on. You are always preparing for a competition. I think with a few months break, I can take the time I need to get better. I’m really looking forward to that.

Thinking long term, what are you hoping to accomplish while skating for the Philippines? Do you think those goals would have been attainable if you skated for the United States?
Melissa: As a kid, I always planned to be an Olympic skater. I did the living room thing just like everyone else. I planned on being in the Olympics in like 2002 when I was like 12 or something. I knew that there were age limits but I thought everyone would think that I was too good not to skate at the Olympics. You know, that didn’t really happen. [Laughs] I hope that it was obtainable for me to represent the U.S. at the Olympics and Worlds. But now, I want to do it for the Philippines. My goal has always been to skate at the Olympics and Worlds. That really hasn’t changed.

Now switching to something much more personal, you recently became engaged to Nick Baroco, right before he left to serve with the U.S. Air Force in Afghanistan. Congratulations! Did his proposal come as a total surprise?
Melissa: I was so surprised. We have known each other since high school but this year, we started dating and we got serious pretty quickly. We have always been really comfortable talking about the future. I hoped and prayed we’d end up together. I had no idea we’d be engaged now but I am so happy. I know Nick is who I want to spend my life with. I’m just so happy.

 How is the wedding planning coming along?
Melissa: I have not done much wedding planning yet. Nick is deployed to Afghanistan right now and we want to plan it together. I know that we do want to get married in a Catholic church though. I have some other ideas but nothing is for sure yet.

I was going to ask which was more stressful: wedding planning or skating?
Melissa: [Laughs] I feel like in skating, I am in a dress and jumping in front of people. In the wedding, I’m in a dress and having to talk to people. Both are stressful. [Laughs]

You just started a blog. Can you tell us about that?
Melissa: Haley Dunne, who is a skater, and I just started a kind of behind the scenes blog about our lives as competitive skaters. It has been really fun so far. We write a little bit and we also post videos. We just want to show people what it’s like to be us. It’s fun. Everyone should read it at http://halenhagui.blogspot.com/.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Melissa. We’re wishing you the best as you skate for Philippines and are praying for Nick’s safe return. 
Melissa: Thank you so much.

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Photo courtesy of Leah Adams

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