Fernandez bona fide force

Rare figure skater from Spain in position to win men's world title

When Javier Fernandez finished his free skate at the European Championships last month, having landed three clean quadruple jumps, a Spanish TV commentator spent the next minute uttering a stream of "bravos."

"I am speechless," the commentator said amid her 13 bravos. "This is a historic moment."

At that moment, with two skaters left, Fernandez was guaranteed of becoming the first Spanish medalist at an international figure skating championship.

He wound up with the gold, plus the season's highest free skate and total scores.

"I did not think this was possible," Fernandez said. "After all, I am still a Spaniard."

His country's figure skating federation has 600 members, compared to 175,000 in the United States. Spain, with 47 million inhabitants, has 14 indoor rinks, about the same number as in Chicago's north suburbs.

"We never thought any Spanish skater could do this," said Mikel Garcia, one of Fernandez' former coaches. "And I think he is the one and only."

Even Fernandez, 21, did not take skating seriously until he left Spain 41/2 years ago to train in North America. In 2010, he became the second Spanish man — and first since 1956 — to compete at the Winter Olympics.

Fernandez was 14th at the Olympics. Now he is a medal contender at next month's World Championships in London, Ont.

"I know people are going to expect a lot," Fernandez said, "but my goal is to be in the top five."

That is realistic for someone who finished a career-high ninth last year, best ever for a Spaniard. It might not seem that way to Spanish media, who suddenly discovered Fernandez when he visited his native Madrid for two days after winning the European title.

"It was crazy," said Sonia Lafuente, the country's top woman, seventh at Europeans. "Every hour, he was in a different place. Now it is not possible for them that he can have a bad day."

It's not as if Spaniards will be watching the world figure skating championships the way they do Lionel Messi. And Fernandez has escaped media pressure since returning to his current home in Toronto, where he trains with two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser.

"I think he is downplaying his chances at worlds," Orser said. "I like his thinking, because he is not great with pressure.

"But he is definitely in contention to win. He knows winning the Europeans was not by chance."

Fernandez began skating at 6 in his native Madrid. But his career really began in 2008 at Garcia's summer skating camp in Andorra.

Among the invited instructors was Russian Nikolai Morozov, then a U.S.-based coach who had guided Japan's Shizuka Arakawa to the 2006 Olympic title. Morozov saw immediately that Fernandez was both a talented jumper and an unhappy camper — when he saw him at all.

"I was skating really bad, I wasn't going to practice, I was getting really mad at myself," Fernandez said. "Nikolai saw I needed something new."

Morozov invited him to train in New Jersey with his high-powered group of skaters. That Garcia had accepted a coaching job there and would share an apartment with Fernandez helped convince the skater's parents to let him go.

"If Javi had stayed in Spain, he would be playing hockey," Garcia said. "When he got to a country with so much interest in skating and saw what he was doing was important, he got motivated, and nothing could stop him."

Fernandez went from 30th at worlds his last year in Spain to 19th, 12th and 10th in his seasons with Morozov. When the coach began a nomadic coaching existence in 2010 — Russia, Latvia, Italy — Fernandez tired of living in hotels and sought a new coach and permanent base in North America.

At that point, Fernandez still was more jumper than skater.

"I was really bad on the second mark," Fernandez said.

And he still had not found his way.

"I had noticed he was a natural talent but he didn't really have much direction or discipline," Orser said. "He was kind of hit-and-miss."

Orser and Canadian choreographer David Wilson had teamed to help Yuna Kim of South Korea — another country with no figure skating history — become 2010 OIympic champion. They have given Fernandez what he says is "a little bit of everything."

"He has matured as a skater," said Garcia, who still coaches in New Jersey. "Before, he was just moving out there. Now he goes on the ice and owns it."

That was evident in his Charlie Chaplin medley free skate program at Europeans. It blended stunning jumps and a perfect sense of whimsy into a delightful entertainment.

"The moment he created was kind of magical, what we used to see when we didn't have the new judging system," Orser said.

Fernandez, a passionate Real Madrid fan and regular soccer player until he left for the States, had another magical experience four days later, when he was invited to sit in the VIP area for Real's Spanish Cup semifinal match with archrival Barcelona. The team gave Fernandez a No. 1 jersey with his name on the back.

For a Madrileno, that also says, "Bravissimo."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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