Every accomplishment has marked not only a personal victory for Javier Fernández, but also a first in Spanish skating history.
Capturing a sixth consecutive European title last week in Moscow elevated him into an elite league. Only two men have ever achieved that feat: Karl Schäfer — who claimed eight (1929-1936) — and Fernández.
And as he moves toward his biggest goal this season — a podium finish at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — he is very aware that the significance of achieving it would resonate far beyond his own personal medal collection.
Though Spain has been sending athletes to the Winter Olympics since 1936, only two have ever come home with a medal — both in the alpine skiing discipline of slalom, and both from the same household. Francisco Fernández Ochoa became a national hero when he won gold in 1972 in Sapporo, Japan. Twenty years later, his younger sister Bianca skied to bronze in Albertville, France.
A quarter century later, Spain awaits its next medal winner — and Fernández wants to be the one to end that lengthy drought in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February. “It’s been a really long time since we got a Winter Olympic medal in any sport, so the goal for me will be to make a little bit more history in figure skating and in my country,” said Fernández who made his Olympic debut in 2010 — the first Spanish figure skater to compete at a Winter Games in more than 50 years. “It would be super special because we have never had an Olympic medal in figure skating. I know how hard the competition is going to be but I’m going to fight. I’m training to be the Olympic champion but my goal is just to be on the podium. I’m pretty calm and relaxed with my goals.”
It almost happened in 2014 in Sochi, Russia, where, after proudly carrying the Spanish flag into Fischt Stadium in the opening ceremony, he finished fourth in the men’s event — just 1.18 points shy of the podium. Fernández said that result fuelled everything that has followed the last three seasons, most notably his back-to-back World titles in 2015 and 2016.
“It was a good Olympics. I competed really well. I just made a few stupid mistakes in the free program and I missed a medal. But it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good competition or that I feel bad about it. Not winning a medal gave me more energy and strength to get back into training, which was a good thing.”
Fernández offered a similar perspective when asked about the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, where his two-year winning streak came to an end. Though he posted a personal best score of 109.05 and won the short program by nearly five points, he placed sixth in the free skate and tumbled to fourth place overall — the first time since 2012 he did not take home a medal from Worlds. “The season was tough for me, right from the beginning. I was training so hard but I couldn’t get everything 100 percent secure,” Fernández explained. “I was fighting all the time in competitions — some of them were great, but some were not the best. It was nothing more than that.
“At Worlds, I had an amazing short program and I was confident in myself going into the free. But, while I was waiting to skate, I heard the scores for Yuzu (Hanyu, who won the event with a 321.59 total). I kind of got scared because I was not 100 percent secure, and I began to think negatively.”
But not winning the World title also removed a large target from his back, and Fernández believes that was something positive to consider this season. It is a point that was also reinforced during a post-Worlds discussion with his coaching team, headed up by Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. “We approached this season with a different perspective. The attention was not going to be fully on me going into a competition, with everyone looking at me because I was last year’s World champion and expecting me to win every single event,” he said. “That was going to help me with the competitions and the pressure this season. I knew it would be a really tough year but when you have a little less pressure on you, it is really a positive.”
Fernández turned to an old friend to help him in his Olympic medal quest. He revived his Charlie Chaplin character for the short program, (crafted by David Wilson who also did the free), but promised fans they would see a new interpretation of the iconic silent film star. “This year, it’s a different kind of Charlie Chaplin. The program and the emotions are completely different,” Fernández explained. “It was a good idea to bring a little Charlie Chaplin back, to show people that even with the same music, you can do different things. Charlie is his own character — he thinks he’s normal, but he is not normal. Everything he does is so funny. He was an amazing character and I can play along with his music and his movies because he does so many things.”
The music for the free program from “Man of La Mancha,” figured to strike a chord with his homeland fans. “It’s a really famous Spanish character that a lot of people know,” said Fernández. “It kind of shows a little bit of all my favorite styles in one program … it’s a program that changes a little bit every minute. We found it very interesting.”
While some of his biggest rivals continue to add more quads to their programs, Fernández stuck with what works for him — two in the short, three in the long. “I had already decided myself that I would not do an extra quad in the free program,” he said.
Instead, he has counted on the complete package and the guidance he receives from Orser, who has provided direction since they teamed up in 2011. “I would say Brian is similar to me in the way he thinks, and that’s why we connected really well. We really understand each other,” Fernández said when asked why Orser has been the right coaching match for him.
Fernández knows the end of the journey he and Orser have been on together is now just weeks away. The Olympics in PyeongChang will be his last. Whether he continues to compete beyond this season … that is yet to be decided. “I can say this will be my last Olympic cycle, that is for sure. I’ve been doing senior competitions since 2007 … I’ve been in skating for like forever,” the Madrid native reflected. “I’m one of the oldest skaters now in men’s skating, with Patrick (Chan) and a few others. I’ve been to 10 senior Worlds and 12 Europeans … not too many people can say that.
“This could be my last year, or maybe not. Maybe I will do another competition or another year. That’s something I have to decide — if I’m really ready to do it or not. There is no point to train and compete if you don’t want to do it. Sometimes that is what skaters need — the adrenalin, and to be at a competition with all their friends, but I don’t know if I’m going to do any more competitions ever.”
With that thought in mind, Fernández has approached this season as if it might indeed be his last, and savored every step of the experience. “I’ll just give it my all because this might be my last one. That will give me a little extra energy,” he said. “So, this season is going to be more like, ‘Enjoy the last season — and then decide what is going to happen.’”
In the first half of the season, his “all” was enough to win Autumn Classic in September, the Japan Open two weeks later, and Internationaux de France in November.
Fernández plans to become a coach at some point once his competitive days are done. He currently spends a week each summer teaching aspiring young skaters in Madrid, but when asked if retirement from competition would mean a return to his homeland, he hedged on the answer.
“That is a good question. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” said Fernández, who is committed to growing the sport in his homeland. “Of course, I have a lot of things to do in Spain and a lot of things I want to work on to keep building the sport. We have a show in Spain that we did this past December, and we want to continue doing that. I still want to do some shows and I want to try coaching. I also have Brian saying, ‘you should stay in Toronto and help me teach here.’ So, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Fernández acknowledged that being a pioneer in Spanish skating has been both a burden and a blessing, but one he has willingly taken on because it is so important to him. “It’s not an easy job. You need to develop a name in figure skating, so that everyone will recognize you and know that you’re going to compete in a particular competition,” he said. “There is also the aspect of trying to develop your country’s reputation and then introduce it to the skating world. It is a good thing that Spanish people now recognize that we are competing at Europeans, Worlds and Olympics.
“A skater that was born in one country and competes for another country that has more of a skating background probably does not think about this. But it’s kind of more beautiful, building and bringing up your sport in your own country, even if it is also a harder job.”
Fernández speaks with pride about Barcelona hosting the Grand Prix Final two years in a row and the impact it had on how Spaniards now view his sport. “It was a big achievement for Spain. It was great because the Spanish skating community didn’t have any competition experience and they did such an amazing job. It was also amazing for building figure skating in the country — to show everybody what a big competition is like, and how exciting it is for the audience,” he said. “People realized how amazing the sport of figure skating is. Having it twice in a row helped skating in Spain so much.”
His nation’s highest officials have also taken note of his achievements. Fernández was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Spain in April 2016. Earlier this year, he received the Gold Medal of the City of Madrid, and the Medal of the Community of Madrid. Those honors “felt like an Olympic or a World medal,” Fernández said.
“When your own country is proud of what you are doing — that is an amazing feeling.”
(Originally published in the IFS December 2017 issue. Updated January 20, 2018.)