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Fernandez joins ranks of Spanish sports royalty

European champion starting to get recognized in soccer-mad home country

Javier Fernández might not be a household name in his native Spain yet, but a world title in London would go a long way toward changing that.
Javier Fernández might not be a household name in his native Spain yet, but a world title in London would go a long way toward changing that. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(03/04/2013) - There is a saying that it is better to be lucky than good. While it took a lot of luck to get Javier Fernández where he is today, the Spanish skater is that good that he was able to take advantage of his good fortune.

Figure skating is not a widely understood sport in Spain, nor is it widely broadcast. So for Fernández to end up becoming one of the world's best figure skaters, and to be from Spain, is a story of how luck and talent intertwined at just the right time.

It was by chance that his older sister, Laura, happened upon watching skating on television one day, back when Javier was about 6. She went to her parents and asked them if she could take a lesson. Young Javier watched his sister on the ice, and he, too, wanted to lace up a pair of skates.

Luckily for the Fernández children, there was a rink not far from their home in Madrid, which is not exactly awash with ice rinks. But even then, Fernández said, the rink was smaller than the standard ice sheet, and he and his sister eventually had to find a larger facility in which to train.

Want to play soccer in Spain? No problem. Want to play basketball? Sure. Want to play tennis? OK. Spain has produced the likes of Raúl, Pau Gasol and Rafael Nadal. In Spain, you can participate in lots of sports. Heck, you can even run with the bulls.

But ice skate? Although it's not unheard of in this country, Spain is not exactly a mecca of winter sports superstars. The country first participated in the 1936 Olympic Winter Games but did not earn a medal until 1972. The only other time a Spaniard won a medal at the Winter Olympics was in 1992. Never has Spain earned a medal in figure skating.

But as luck would have it, Fernández was able to train, and he even got to spend some summers practicing alongside three-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko of Russia. Alexei Mishin, Plushenko's longtime coach, would take some of his students to Spain for summer camps. When Fernández was about 14, he made it his goal to skate like Plushenko.

Nowadays, many skaters around the world, especially in Spain, want to skate like Fernández.

Last month, Fernández became the first Spaniard to win the European figure skating title -- and the first skater from Spain to win an ISU championship -- and he did so in commanding style, beating runner-up Florent Amodio of France by nearly 25 points. Next month in London, Ontario, he has a good shot at becoming the first Spanish skater to win a world figure skating title.

Fernández's rise to the top of the European standings struck a chord back in his native country. Following his victory, he spent two days in Spain and was offered VIP passes to a Real Madrid soccer match. Afterward, he met with all the players, and they signed a T-shirt for him. One of the players actually recognized Fernández, saying, "I know you. You're the boy who lives in Canada, right?" (Indeed he does, as he trains with Brian Orser in Toronto.) He met the prince and princess of Spain and even received a congratulatory letter from the king.

"I never had that happen before," Fernández said with a laugh when he mentioned the king's letter.

All of this has overwhelmed Fernández, who as a youngster could barely follow his sport on television, let alone have it recognized by Spanish royalty.

Spanish royalty is especially pleased to have one of its own fare well in an Olympic sport. Madrid is a candidate city to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Even though those would be the Summer Games, the prince and princess invited Fernández to participate in a 2020 event to add to Spain's Olympic caché.

Truth be told, he does not get back to Spain much, and often while training in Toronto he yearns for meals from his home country, especially paella. If he can find a soccer game being broadcast online, he will watch it. His father, Antonio, who is in the Spanish military, and his mother, Enriqueda, who works in a post office, will try to see Fernández compete if he is in Europe. But the high cost of traveling to Canada will prevent them from watching him skate at the 2013 World Championships.

They did get to watch him win the European title, which he earned in Zagreb, Croatia, and they stayed at the same hotel as their son.

"We celebrated in the hotel and opened a couple of bottles of champagne in my room," Fernández said. "My aunt and cousin were there, too."

As proud as his parents are of their son's good fortune, Fernández said they remain somewhat outsiders in the sport.

"They know a little bit," he said. "But they still get confused with the jumps."

Fernández said he was home for a short time during Christmas and a little bit in the summer, but most of his year is spent in Canada. He first left Spain to train when he was about 17. At the time, he was coached in Hackensack, N.J., by Nikoli Morozov, another Russian whom Fernández had met through summer camps in Spain.

When Fernández first traveled across the Atlantic to train, he said he could barely speak a word of English. He said he taught himself the language and speaks quite well. He laughed when he thought back to his first days away from Spain, working with a Russian coach and being around Japanese skaters in an English-speaking country, but slowly, he made it work.

After about a year and half with Morozov, he decided to train with Orser, which was somewhat amusing because many people believe Fernández bears a striking resemblance to the two-time Olympic silver medalist.

"I really didn't know Brian before, but I had met him once a long time ago," Fernández said. "I even took a picture with him and everyone says, 'He looks like your dad.'"

Canadians have taken to Fernández almost as one of their own, which certainly will help when he skates in London, about a two-hour drive from Toronto. He might not be as popular as the country's two-time world champion, Patrick Chan, but Fernández does feel Canadian love.

"People here treat me really well," he said. "The people really support me."

And it helps that Fernández skates well. In his charming free skate, in which he performs a Charlie Chaplin routine, he not only delights with his choreography but also includes three quadruple jumps.

Fernández said he first landed a quad (Salchow) when he was about 15 or 16. He tried it one day and three days later, he landed one. After a brief time when the International Skating Union's judging system did not reward quads as much as it does now, the quads seemed to disappear from competitors' programs like drones on radar.

But they have made a resurgence of late, and now fans are seeing them everywhere. All of the top five finishers in the free skate in Zagreb attempted at least one quad, if not two or three. Canadian Kevin Reynolds landed three to win the Four Continents title, and Max Aaron landed two quads to win his first U.S. crown.

Even though Fernández did not reach the podium at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, placing fourth, his performance in the free skate, which included three beautifully landed quads, made him the toast of the event.

The last time a competitor tried three quads in a program at the Olympic Winter Games was Tim Goebel, who landed the trifecta en route to a bronze medal in Salt Lake City in 2002. Evan Lysacek won the gold medal in Vancouver without one, but no one thinks a quad-less program will put a skater on top of the men's podium next winter in Sochi.

Goebel once said that landing three quads in one program is like hitting three home runs in a baseball game. When told of that analogy, Fernández agreed but put his comparison in soccer terms: "It's kind of like scoring a hat trick."

Fernández will try three quads again at the world championships, and who knows how many he will attempt less than a year from now in Sochi.

For now, he's enjoying being the toast of Spain.