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Fernandez chases blades of glory

By Pritha Sarkar

(Reuters) - Should Javier Fernandez discover that his cherished skating boots have gone AWOL when he arrives in Sochi for the Winter Olympics, don't expect him to lose his temper.

In fact, if anything, he will be thanking his lucky stars.

Days before the 22-year-old became the first Spaniard to win a major figure skating title by striking gold at the 2013 European championships, his skates got lost in transit.

Turning up in Zagreb without the blades could have proved to be a major catastrophe for Fernandez as it takes days, if not weeks, for skaters to break into new boots.

Rather than panicking or suffering a meltdown, Fernandez relied on the ice running through his veins to triumph.

"I have to make sure I lose my skates again! I should tell the (person) at the check-out counter to make sure the skates are not put on the same flight," a jovial Fernandez told Reuters in a telephone interview just days before he headed for the Black Sea resort as a double European champion.

"When bad things happen and when everything goes wrong, I get stronger and am more determined to do my best."

Hence it is little surprise the Toronto-based skater is not stashing a back-up pair in a second suitcase as he heads to Sochi shouldering the hopes of almost 50 million Spaniards.

Rather than worrying about things that are beyond his control "since I am not allowed to carry the skates as hand luggage", Fernandez was more concerned about ending Spain's 22-year medal drought at the Winter Games.

"My medals last year showed everybody that a Spanish skater can be out there fighting for the top prize at the Olympics," said Fernandez, who also scooped a bronze at the 2013 world championships.

"It's surprising for the Spanish people that a good skater has actually come out from the country. That's something we never had before. So Spanish people are really getting into the sport and they are starting to care about what I do."

For a sporting superpower like Spain who boast world champions from soccer to Formula One and cycling to tennis, their record at the Winter Olympics makes dire reading.

BEN JOHNSON MOMENT

Two medals, one gold for Francisco Fernandez Ochoa in 1972 and a bronze for his sister and fellow Alpine skier Blanca Fernandez Ochoa in 1992, is the sum total of their success from 18 Games dating back to 1936.

To make matters worse, the country also suffered their own Ben Johnson moment when German-born cross-country skier Johann Muehlegg won three gold medals in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games only to be disqualified for doping.

Against such a backdrop and with the country blessed with glorious Mediterranean sunshine all year long, it is little wonder that there are few takers for winter sports in Spain.

However, a young Fernandez was not put off by the idea of spending hours and hours training in an ice cold rink and on Friday he will get his moment in the global spotlight when he leads out the Spanish team in the opening ceremony.

"It's a big honour to be at the Olympics and carry your country's flag at the Olympics and it's a good thing for me to do that," Fernandez said before reminiscing about the years when he was mercilessly teased by schoolboy bullies for pursuing a 'girl's sport'.

"In a soccer-mad country like Spain, many people still think that figure skating is for girls and that will continue until the sport doesn't get bigger.

"But now a lot of guys who usually follow soccer are commentating on the Internet that they think it's amazing that we have Spanish figure skater competing well and getting medals. So that's a good step.

"If my success helps to get other people into the sport and they become successful, it could become very successful in Spain."

Fernandez has no idea where his tormentors have disappeared to but chances are that over the next few weeks they will note how successful their fellow pupil has become as he bids to become the first Spaniard to win an Olympic medal on blades.

To do that, he plans to perform three soaring quadruple jumps in his free programme as "it's worth a lot of points" and once that is out of the way on February 14, there will be only one thing he will be looking forward to.

"When season is done then I'll find a warm place and go to the beach and relax and just get out of the cold," he laughed.

(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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