(Reuters) - Growing up in a city awash with macho sporting icons, Javier Fernandez was mercilessly teased by schoolboy bullies who seemed to think he spent his time twirling around the ice on his toes in a tutu.
Fernandez has no idea where his tormentors have disappeared to but chances are they would have noted how successful their fellow pupil who chose to pursue a “girl’s sport” has become.
The 21-year-old was having the last laugh in January when he became the first Spaniard to strike gold at the European figure skating championships by winning the men’s title.
“In Spain they don’t see skating as a boy’s sport. So sometimes it was hard to admit that I wanted to be a skater,” Madrid-born Fernandez told Reuters in a telephone interview as he prepared for this week’s world championships in London, Ontario.
”When I was in school and said I‘m a figure skater, in Spain they see figure skating like ballet, like something for girls.
“So they are always going to judge you in a bad way and say bad things about you. It’s hard when people in your country think ice skating is a girl’s sport. I was teased about being a skater but I didn’t really care a lot.”
It was just as well Fernandez developed a thick skin when he was still in school, because had he buckled under the pressure, he would not have been credited with putting Spain on the figure skating map.
“In a country with so many sporting champions, it’s hard to fight for attention with sports such as soccer, tennis, F1, cycling as they win many competitions. But I‘m hoping to make figure skating one of the top sports in Spain too,” Fernandez, who tried a number of mainstream sports before losing his heart to figure skating, said with a distinctive Canadian twang.
The nation is currently enjoying a golden age in sports, with the country’s soccer team being reigning world and European champions, tennis player Rafa Nadal owning 11 grand slam titles and Fernando Alonso steering his way to two Formula One championships.
Despite so many world class athletes coming off the Spanish production line, Fernandez was taken aback with the recognition he received for larking about as Charlie Chaplin in Zagreb’s Dom Sportova arena.
“After the Europeans, I got the kind of letters of congratulations I was not expecting to receive. I even got one from the King and Queen of Spain,” he said his voice trailing off in a whisper.
“I got one from the President (of Spain). I got one from (soccer club) Real Madrid as they are my team and that was very impressive for me. It was a very nice letter that I have saved.”
Getting to a level that would get him noticed in Spain, let alone around the world did not happen overnight for Fernandez.
He initially showcased his ability to pull off soaring triple Axels, Salchows, loops and toeloops in annual summer camps run in Spain by 2006 Olympic champion Yevgeny Plushenko’s coach Alexei Mishin.
However, with no year-round skating pedigree to fall back on in his home city, Fernandez relocated to New Jersey aged 17, then travelled to Moscow before settling in Toronto where he is now coached by former world champion Brian Orser.
Under Orser, who guided South Korea’s Kim Yuna to Olympic glory in Vancouver three years ago, Fernandez has reached new heights as he is one of the few skaters able to execute three quadruple jumps in one program.
That high-risk strategy not only paid off at the Europeans but he also became the first Spaniard to win gold at a Grand Prix event, beating twice world champion Patrick Chan on home ice in Skate Canada last October.
Despite his run of success, Fernandez did not want to get carried away at the prospect of beating Chan again this week.
“It’s true that I have already beaten the world champion this season but that was only one competition and Patrick Chan is a master on the ice. Of course I want to be first but my main goal is to be in the top five.”
Should he clinch the gold medal on Friday, Fernandez will head into next February’s Sochi Winter Games as world champion but hopes it does not mean he will end up with an unwanted headache.
“I like being recognized a little bit. It’s always nice to know that people love you a little bit and know what you are doing but I would not like to be famous like a soccer player who can’t get rid of the cameras,” he said. “I would definitely not like to be in that position. That may be why I chose figure skating.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar in London; Editing by Frank Pingue