Ice Network

Golden Fernández lights Spain's figure skating fire

Technical ability, likable personality drive world champion's popularity
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Javier Fernández is carrying the flag for figure skating in his native Spain. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2014-15 Person of the Year sometime in May. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by icenetwork contributor Klaus-Reinhold Kany.

As little as 10 years ago, skating fans would have laughed if they were told that a skater from Spain would someday be world champion. Even that recently, Spanish skaters rarely qualified for the free skate at the World Figure Skating Championships.

But Maria Teresa Samaranch, president of the small Spanish ice sport federation until last fall, had a dream. With money, foresight and drive, the daughter of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch used her influence and contacts to help build a new Olympic-sized training rink in Madrid and send promising young Spanish skaters to expensive summer camps.

Laura Fernández was one of the skaters who benefited from Samaranch's vision. She competed at the world championships in 2005 and 2006, and although she did not pass the qualification round, her love of the sport inspired her younger brother to give skating a try.

"The first rink I skated on was really small, [the size of] a press room or classroom," said Javier Fernández, who turned 24 on April 15. "Now, [that rink] is a restaurant. There was no (skating) tradition in our country.

"I followed my sister, watched competitions on TV. I never took the skates off. Most of my friends didn't believe that I was skating. They didn't know what it was."

Samaranch's largesse offered Javier opportunities. He trained in Madrid under coaches Carolina Sanz and Jordi Lafarga, and also attended summer camps run by Alexei Mishin, who was paid to teach in Jaca, in northern Spain, for several weeks in the summer.

Javier made his worlds debut in 2007, placing 35th. His potential, however, was evident. The next season, he was 30th, and in 2009, he jumped to 19th.

In 2010, he became the first Spanish figure skater to compete at the Olympic Games since Darío Villalba Flores in 1956. He finished 14th in Vancouver, and a month later came in 12th at the world championships.

Following that season, Fernández moved from Spain to Hackensack, New Jersey, to train under the renowned Nikoli Morozov. Morozov choreographed an excellent free skate for him to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean, and fans and judges took more notice of the swashbuckling Spaniard.

After placing 10th at the 2011 World Championships, Fernández left the peripatetic Morozov, who often darted around the globe to train the many international skaters in his stable.

"He is a good coach, but I need a place where I can feel at home and stay in the same bed every night," Fernández said at the time.

He moved to Canada, to train under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. In his first year, he was the only star at the rink, but in the spring of 2012, future Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu joined him.

"One of the reasons for my success, and Yuzuru's success, is the good atmosphere in our club in Toronto," Fernández said. "Brian, for me, is not only coach but also kind of a father and friend. When I was sick once, he went to the pharmacy to buy me some medication."

"But he can also be my enemy if I do not train enough," he continued with a smile. "Then he gets mad at me."    

In the fall of 2012, Fernández won his first Grand Prix title, at Skate Canada, and qualified for the Grand Prix Final, where he finished fourth. A month later, he won his first gold medal at the European championships and went on to win bronze at the 2013 World Championships.  

It was around that time that he began to forge a special bond with reporters around the world. Ever humble, he admitted that he found it unbelievable to be finishing among outstanding skaters like Patrick Chan and Daisuke Takahashi. He wore a smile in victory and defeat, often joking in press conferences in slightly fractured, but charming, English.

While his outgoing personality added to his popularity on and off the ice, it is his superb technical ability that has propelled him onto podium after podium. He typically includes three quadruple jumps in his free skates, and his quad salchow is nearly textbook perfect.

Still, it was the salchow that let him down at the 2014 Olympic Games, where he was favored for a medal. He tripled his second quad salchow in his free skate, and then did a second solo triple salchow at the end of his program, violating the rules restricting the number of solo triples and combinations. The resulting deduction resulted in his finishing fourth.

Even then, he never lost his smile.

"What can you do? It's a sport, and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose," he said. "I am young. I can go for another Olympics."

Fernández quickly recovered, winning another bronze medal at the world championships.

Originally, the skater planned to skip the 2014-15 Grand Prix season, but when he learned that the Grand Prix Final would be held in Barcelona, he changed his mind. As it was his first time competing at an important international event in his home country, there was an inordinate amount of pressure on him, and he made several mistakes in the short program. He regrouped in the free skate, however, and skated off with the silver medal, behind Hanyu.

In January, Fernández won his third straight European crown, but it was his gold medal at the 2015 World Championships that proved to be the icing on the cake. There, in Shanghai, he combined excellent jumps with energy and humor in his audience-friendly free to The Barber of Seville en route to winning Spain's first-ever figure skating world title.

"This gold medal exceeds my highest dreams," Fernández said. "It will help me to keep going for the next three years, give me a lot of energy to practice hard and to keep competing and trying my best in every single competition."

Thanks to Fernández and Samaranch, Spain has gained growing influence in the ISU. This December, for the second straight season, the Grand Prix Final will be held in Barcelona.

"I am trying to help this sport grow in my country," Fernández said. "The Grand Prix Final last December helped a lot to bring more interest for skating."

Fernández has kept busy since winning worlds. He traveled to Japan to spend time with his girlfriend, two-time Japanese world champion Miki Ando, and train a new show program. From there, he returned to Canada and was an honorary guest at the World Synchronized Skating Championships in Hamilton, Ontario.

He is now in his hometown of Madrid, visiting family and promoting skating in his country.

"I will stay until the end of May and will give many interviews," Fernández said. "And I hope to see Rafael Nadal playing tennis in Barcelona. He is my idol. I admire him for his sport and how he deals with people. I also play tennis but certainly not as well as he does."

The nine-time French Open champion, another famously humble Spanish sportsman, would probably smile and say, "That's alright, Javier. Just imagine me in figure skates."