By Hiro Yoshida
This week Javier Fernández embarks on another Grand Prix tourney as he approaches the twilight of his career. In the past year, the Spanish skating pioneer has seen many highs and lows and the next few months will determine if he will be able to fulfil his ultimate goal of standing on the Olympic rostrum.
In early November 2016, Fernández competed in back-to-back Grand Prix events in Russia and France. Aside from losing the Rostelecom Cup short programme to Japan’s Shoma Uno, the two-time World champion was otherwise in full control and picked up both titles and sealed qualification to the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France.
Fernández had finished second in the previous two editions of the Grand Prix Final and went into the 2016 event with hopes of adding a gold to his collection. It was not to be. Errors on a quadruple Salchow and a triple Axel in the short had him in third going into the free skating. He began the free tentatively by turning a quadruple toe loop into a triple. Things went further downhill as he stepped out of a quadruple Salchow and fell on a triple Axel midway through his Elvis Presley medley routine. He wound up in fourth place overall.
“I think it was kind of my fault. After my two Grand Prixs, I did too many things. My brain wasn’t really set up in training and I think that paid off a little bit here. I didn’t get used to the ice in practices and it was a little messy in general. We just have to go back to training and go back to concentrate and work for the next competition.”
At the end of January, Fernández participated in his 11th European Figure Skating Championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic. He skated a clean short and, despite a painful fall on a quadruple Salchow in the free which forced him to withdraw from performing in the closing gala, he comfortably claimed his fifth European title, a feat last achieved by Ondrej Nepela in 1973.
“It was definitely not the best free skate of the season. It is hard to chase your season bests and records all the time even if you want it. I did not think I would fall that hard. After you fall, it takes a second until you set up your mind back and you go on with the other elements. I am just a normal skater, not a machine.”
At the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland in March, the expectation of retaining his title initially did not seem to faze him. He posted a new personal best score of 109.05 points putting him in pole position for the free. Fernández took to the ice as the final skater in the men’s competition. Earlier in the same group, training partner Yuzuru Hanyu had racked up a new world record score of 223.20 which meant that the Spaniard would need to be close to his personal best to take the victory. The pressure turned out to be too much. A fall on a quadruple Salchow, doubling a triple flip and stepping out of a triple loop not only cost him the title, but a medal. Fernández finished off the World podium for the first time in five years.
“It was a hard competition and I knew that it would be before I came here and when I was here. I feel relieved because the season is over and there has been a lot of stress. Skaters have a hard year every single season. I said it so many times that being world champion is not going to save me from anything. It’s not the end of the world. Next year I am going to try again and I am going to try at the Olympics. If it happens, it will be amazing because I am going to be working hard. If it doesn’t happen, then another thing will come up. It’s really important for me and I will work my ass off for it.”
Despite being deposed from the world podium, Fernández took it on the chin as a lesson for the season ahead.
“Every competition is different and many things are going to happen. That’s why when something happens I have to learn from it. Some people might think I have learned everything already, but every time is so different. When you lose a competition like this, it brings you down to earth.”
After the World Championships, Fernández got to work on new programmes for the Olympic season. He chose Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” for his short and “Man of La Mancha” for his free. Both routines were choreographed by David Wilson. He is aware that, compared to most of his rivals, he has maturity on his side and he will do his best to exploit that advantage.
“Of course, we will try to play with it because we know it’s one of my strengths. Yuzu, Shoma, Boyang (Jin) and all these skaters are younger and have a different style of skating. If I have something they don’t have, then I have to play that against them. I can play a little bit with being sexy. I can play with the audience. I have to do that because if not, what am I going to do? Six quads? No. I’ve got to do what is the best for me to do.”
Fernandez made his 2017-2018 debut at the Autumn Classic in Montreal, Canada in late September. It was an earlier start than usual to the season for him and there was the added interest of another showdown with Hanyu. The short saw the Japanese skater lay down a world record score of 112.72 with Fernández adrift on 101.20. The free was a very different story. Hanyu had his worst skate in years and, even with a modest performance by his own standards, Fernández was able to seal victory over his rival for the first time since the 2016 World Championships.
The two have trained alongside each other under the tutelage of Brian Orser since 2012 and, while they remain fierce competitors on the ice, their rivalry is still a mutually respectful and friendly one.
“We’re athletes and we compete against ourselves. Whenever we skate, we just want to do our own programme. I don’t go into a competition thinking about who I can beat. No. I do the best I can and then the judges will decide. I think this sport is not like tennis or soccer where you play directly against each other. I think that is why sometimes we have better relationships with other skaters.”
Whether Fernández is able to win a coveted Olympic medal or not in PyeongChang next February, his legacy and contribution to Spanish figure skating is secure. In December 2016, he headlined “RevolutiOnIce”, his own show, that played to a packed house in Madrid. During summer 2017, he organised a week-long summer camp for promising skating talent also in Madrid. Earlier this year, he signed a sponsorship deal with La Liga, Spain’s professional football league. The partnership will see Fernández promoting the league in markets where his and figure skating’s popularity exceeds that of soccer.
“We want to take the LaLiga brand to countries where we’re well-known and very popular,” Fernández explained at the announcement of the deal. “Walking and working hand in hand will be highly mutually beneficial and we’re going to do our very best. LaLiga is helping Spanish sport and the fact that they’re going to pay for elite sportspeople’s social security is one of the best developments in the country’s sporting history.”
The backing of lucrative sponsors has enabled Fernández to concentrate on being the best skater he can be, but he is quick to acknowledge that he would be not be where he is today without the backing of those nearest and dearest to him.
“My family supported me from when I was really young until today. They had to give up so many things in their lives to make me the person I am right now in figure skating. My dad had to work extra hours because my parents didn’t have the money to pay when I left Spain. My sister had to quit skating just to have extra money for me. My family did so many amazing things and I don’t think I will ever find enough payback for them for everything they have done.”
As his career comes to an end, Fernández has begun to consider what he might do when his competitive skating days are over. While he has many ideas, his mind is totally set on being ready in just under 100 days’ time for the biggest stage in his life.
“I already created a company and I want to be teaching and doing shows. I’ve got a lot of things in my head that I can possibly do later, but now the priority is figure skating and competitions. I know there’s only a short time left for me and I want to focus on it.”