VALDEMORO, Spain (AP) – It was still dark on a cold December morning when Javier Fernandez arrived for practice at a modest rink.
Only a few local skaters were at the venue in Valdemoro, a small suburb some 30 miles (kilometers) south of Madrid. The rink’s roof lights were not yet fully on by the time Fernandez stepped onto the ice wearing charcoal-black skates, grey pants and dark-blue jacket.
The red-and-yellow colors of the small Spanish flags on the rear of his skates stood out as he began gliding around the ice. He exchanged a few quick words with his coach by the boards and off he went to work on his twists and jumps.
It was the beginning of another long practice for Fernandez, the Spanish sensation who in February will enter the Pyeongchang Olympics with a chance to win his nation’s first figure skating medal.
“Early practices are tougher,” the two-time world champion said. “They are not easy, but they make us better athletes. I hope it shows in the competition.”
Everything will need to go perfectly for the 26-year-old Spaniard who will be participating in his third – and probably last – Olympics. If he delivers a performance of which he is capable, the gold will be well within reach. But rivals are waiting, including two-time U.S. champion Nathan Chen.
“I’m going to try to be the Olympic champion, but the competition is going to be really hard,” said Fernandez, who won his sixth consecutive European championship last weekend.
Fernandez just missed the podium four years ago in Sochi, finishing fourth in what was his best Olympic result. His performances have turned him into a star in Spain.
Despite not being a tennis idol, a racing champion or a soccer great, Fernandez has reached icon status in Spain, where figure skating does not exactly have a long tradition.
His life-size statue at Madrid’s wax museum is close by the sculptured figures of 16-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, four-time MotoGP champion Marc Marquez and Barcelona soccer great Andres Iniesta.
Two years ago, Fernandez was awarded the gold medal for the nation’s royal order of sports merit. He has been a staple in newspapers and sports shows across the country, sometimes sharing front-page space with Real Madrid and Barcelona.
No Spaniard has won a Winter Olympics gold medal since skier Francisco Fernandez Ochoa in 1972. The nation’s only other winter medal was a bronze, in 1992 by Fernandez Ochoa’s younger sister, Blanca, also a skier.
The rink where Fernandez practices in Valdemoro was named after the elder Fernandez Ochoa.
“I’ll be just happy to be in the podium because Spain never had a medal in figure skating, so that would be making history and I would also be happy with that,” said Fernandez, whose every move was being watched closely by a group of young skaters visibly thrilled to be sharing the ice with their nation’s greatest figure skater.
“It’s just crazy to be here skating alongside our biggest idol,” said teenager Esther Manzanero, whose practice session started just a few minutes before Fernandez made it to the ice.
A huge banner with Fernandez’s photo hung above one of the rink’s entrances, covering the wall all the way up to the roof.
“We are trying to help the sport as much as we can,” Fernandez said. “Of course, it’s a little hard when you are still competing and when you have to train a lot. But even if I’m in the other side of the planet, we are always trying to help the ice rinks or help the kids or even help the federation to keep building this sport, because that’s our main goal, to make figure skating popular in Spain.”
Fernandez was the first male Spanish figure skater to participate in the Olympics since Dario Villalba in 1956.
Spain’s flag bearer in Sochi, Fernandez has already said he might not have the energy to keep training and competing at a high level after next month’s Olympics and the world championships in Milan in March.
One of Fernandez’s biggest challengers in Pyeongchang will be someone he knows well: Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, who has the same coach as the Spaniard, Brian Orser.
Fernandez calls Hanyu a “teammate” and often practices with him before competitions. The Japanese is a two-time world champion and the 2014 Olympic gold medalist.
“When we train together it’s exciting,” Fernandez said. “But when a really hard competition is coming up and you are not having a good practice, or he is not having a good practice, it affects the environment a little bit. It can create a little bit of tension if everybody is having a bad day.”
Orser said the “passionate” Spaniard has already made the leap to become an Olympic champion.
“(It was just about) believing that he was actually in the game, that he was one of the players,” said Orser, who won two Olympic silver medals for Canada in the 1980s and coached Yuna Kim to Olympic gold in 2010.
Fernandez knows it could, indeed, be his time.
“I think in these Olympics I’m going to be more prepared,” Fernandez said. “I’ve been now two times world champion, and in the last Olympics in Sochi I wasn’t a world champion. So I think it’s going to help me fight to be in the podium.”