Ice Network

Steadfast Fernández ready to take on all challengers

Spaniard sets goal of winning Grand Prix Final, medaling at next Olympics
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Javier Fernández has skated out of the shadow of his more famous training mate, Yuzuru Hanyu, and established himself as maybe the best men's skater in the world. -Getty Images

Javier Fernández is well aware that his training partner -- the Olympic champion, Yuzuru Hanyu -- is widely considered the greatest skater in the world.

But on a day when we meet over coffee at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club, where the two best men's skaters on the planet train under Brian Orser, I remind the Spaniard that he and not Hanyu is the two-time reigning world champion.

Doesn't that count for anything?

Fernández, unassuming and always smiling, doesn't take the bait.

"I think Yuzuru is a skater who has so much talent. … He's good. He's really good," Fernández says. "If he competes well -- and I always say this -- it's really hard to beat him. Really, really hard to beat him."

Fernández has, however, beaten Hanyu at the last two world championships, including the most recent one this past April in Boston. In the free skate there, the Spaniard was downright sensational skating to Frank Sinatra's "Luck Be A Lady."

But on that night, he didn't need any luck -- he just needed Javi.

A new reality

Javier Fernández never planned on being one of the best skaters in the world. He comes from a country with little skating tradition whatsoever, a nation that has one skating rink per every 3.8 million people. No wonder he had to leave.

"All my life I actually never thought that I would be here competing at this level and winning the biggest competitions in the world," Fernández said in what turned out to be a nearly 40-minute candid chat. At one point, a pair of autograph-seeking youngsters approach him, but Fernández turned them away, saying, "I am doing this interview now. Sorry."

He apologized to me, too.

The humility and steadfastness that have branded him as one of the hardest-working individuals in men's figure skating follow him off the ice. After winning his first Spanish crown at the age of 19, he finished 14th at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and thereafter made a move to Toronto to train with Orser. In addition to the aforementioned pair of world titles, he's also the four-time reigning European champion.

In Spain, however, few people know him by face. He can still go out in public comfortably, some folks giving him a second glance or coming up to him and saying, "Are you that figure skater?"

Yes, he is. But for Fernández, he's still got more work to do.

Settled, and with priorities

Fernández became financially stable after his third European title in 2015. He started booking more shows and commanding higher appearance fees, a result of his heightened status. This past summer, he did three different tours, spending some time back home in Spain, where his family resides, and then in Japan, with girlfriend Miki Ando and her 3-year-old daughter, Himawari.

"It's not like I don't have to work anymore in my life, but I also can't complain," Fernández explained.

The finances of a top-level figure skater can be baffling. Fernández works with a childhood friend, Jorge Serradilla, in Spain, where they are exploring setting up an agency of sorts to help other athletes down the line.

For now, though, the most precious thing for Javier is time, of which there never seems to be enough -- not for skating, family, business or Miki.

"Your career as a skater is so short. We have to take advantage of the time when we're still competing," he said.

Balance is important to Fernández, but it's not easy to maintain. He has called Toronto home for more than five years now, and he's there for one reason above all others: to train. The others in his life know this.  

"There aren't going to be any big changes, like Miki coming to Toronto to live with me while I'm training," Fernández explained. "Not because I don't want to, but my first priority is figure skating. In the future, we will do what we want to do. She totally understands that."

Golden goals

Fernández talks about "defending" a lot. In 2016, he repeated as world champion, and this upcoming season he has a national, European and world title, as well as two Grand Prix gold medals to defend once again. The Grand Prix Final has remained elusive, a fact he is well aware of.

"I have never won the Grand Prix Final," he said, having earned the silver there the last two years running behind -- you guessed it -- Hanyu. "I want to do a good job there. I want that (gold) medal for the first time. There are two medals that I still want in my career: The Grand Prix Final medal and the Olympics. I'm going to try."

Fernández laughed. He laughed quite a bit during our conversation actually, but his light-heartedness when talking about the thing he wants most is endearing. There is no lack of seriousness, however, in those aspirations: An Olympic medal of any color would do, he said.

"That's my only goal for the Olympics: I just want to be on the podium," Fernández said. "I'm not asking to be champion. If I am -- if everything goes well and I win -- even better, of course. But for now, my goal is to be on the podium. To win a medal and bring it back to Spain."

It was in Sochi that he just missed the podium, performing one too many triple salchows in his free skate and having the second one invalidated. Because of that mental error, he lost the bronze to Denis Ten by 1.18 points.

Focused on 'now'

He'd like to right that mistake at the next Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, but it's not something he's focused on this year. His programs this season are similar to the ones he used a year ago; he's keeping his short, changing only his choreography and costume.

In the free, "it's the same idea," Fernandez said, referring to his Sinatra program. This time, though, he's skating to music by another iconic figure, Elvis Presley.

"In a way, it's totally new," he said. "The setup of the jumps has changed, and the steps have changed. Everything. But it's going to be the same kind of difficulty."

He's been toying with the quad loop, a jump Hanyu executed in early October at the Autumn Classic International. He has no plans, however, to use it in competition -- yet.

"The Olympics coming doesn't really play on my mind," he said of 2018. "It does make you think about the different options for next year, and I have ideas about what I want to do, but in the day to day, it's not in my mind. I know it's there. It's coming.

"My brain is too busy thinking about the competitions this year. I have to fight for everything. I want to defend my titles. It's not going to be easy."

The heart is here

None of it has been easy for Fernández, or for Ando. The two see each other only every few months. They each wear matching necklaces with a pair of connected charms, a gift she bought.

"She understands when I am tired and when I want to talk or not," he said of Ando, who matches her boyfriend in the number of world titles won. "The relationship that I have with her, I keep it…well, quiet. She understands. It helps to have someone who really understands what I am trying to do."

And what he is trying to do is to keep winning, even with one of the best skaters of all time in his way.