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Fernandez improving, but still not in Hanyu’s class

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World champion Javier Fernandez made history last week when he won his fourth consecutive European title in Bratislava. In accomplishing the feat the Spaniard became the first skater since Czechoslovakia’s Ondrej Nepela in 1972 to capture the Euro crown four straight times.

The late Nepela, who was the gold medalist at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics and a three-time world champion, won an incredible five consecutive Euro championships (1969-73) during his career. Sadly he died at the age of just 38 in 1989.

There is irony in Fernandez equalling Nepela’s mark in Slovakia, which was formerly known as Czechoslovakia. In fact, Nepela’s last world title (in 1973) came on home ice in Bratislava.

Though Fernandez’s victory was impressive, a closer look reveals there is still a significant gap between him and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. Fernandez topped the 300-point mark for the first time in winning the Euro title this year, but had an error-filled free skate that included touching down on his opening quadruple toe loop, falling on his triple axel, and two-footing the landing on his triple loop.

Fernandez, better known by many in these parts as the boyfriend of retired two-time world champion Miki Ando, joined Hanyu as the only men to have topped the 100-point mark in the short program and 200-point plateau in the free skate in an international event.

Fernandez topped a weak field by more than 60 points in victory with a total of 302.77. Israel’s Alexei Bychenko was second with 242.56, with Russia’s Maxim Kovtun taking third on 242.21.

Hanyu and Fernandez are not only rivals and training partners, but good friends as well. Over the years Ice Time has observed that, unlike many sports, skaters focus less on their opponents and more on conquering the elements in their programs. The camaraderie comes from the challenge inherent in trying to produce clean skates on the big stage.

This is why you saw Hanyu openly cheering for Fernandez last year at the worlds in Shanghai, even though he narrowly lost the title to his friend. Being the kind of person that he is, Hanyu knew that by Fernandez winning it would not only give him confidence, but would also propel his career to greater heights.

It did indeed do that, as the Madrid native is now a national hero in his home country and deservedly so.

Fernandez’s climb to the elite of skating has been a long road. He never medaled in a Junior Grand Prix event and finished 35th at his first worlds in 2007 in Tokyo. But he persevered, improving his finish at the worlds ever year until earning the bronze twice (2013, 2014), ultimately topping the podium in China last year.

Though Fernandez’s tenacity is a testament to his fortitude, the reality is that he lacks the natural talent that the gifted Hanyu has. Hanyu was the 2010 world junior champion and quickly established himself as a contender on the senior circuit.

Hanyu’s skating skills and presentation are superior, and when he lands his quads he often does it with a feathery touch. His free skate this season to “Seimei” is an example of the fusion of the perfect music with the ideal program.

Fernandez has had some programs that have featured excellent choreography over the years. His comic rendition during the Exhibition Gala at the Sochi Olympics was absolutely brilliant. But at the end of the day, he is still not in Hanyu’s league on the ice.

If Hanyu is on his game, like he was at both the NHK Trophy and the Grand Prix Final this season, he will capture his second world title in convincing fashion in Boston in April.

Opportunity knocks: Good news arrived for U.S. junior champion Tomoki Hiwatashi last week when he learned he would be representing the States at the world junior championships in Hungary next month.

Under the U.S. setup, the junior champion is not automatically granted a berth for the world juniors. Hiwatashi was the first alternate, and moved up when Nathan Chen, who won the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, was injured during the Exhibition Gala at the U.S. nationals in Minnesota and had to undergo hip surgery.

Ice Time has communicated with the Hiwatashi family over the past week and learned some further details about them. Tomoki Hiwatashi, who has won U.S. titles at an amazing four different levels in his short career, might surprise a few folks with who his skating idol growing up.

“My skating idol as I grew up is Mao Asada,” he wrote in an email to Ice Time. “I started watching Mao Asada since I was five years old and loved her competition and her triple axel.”

Tomoki’s parents are both from Kobe. His father Satoshi works in Chicago where he is the president of a U.S. subsidiary of a Japanese company based in Osaka. Hiwatashi and his family first moved to the U.S. in 1996 when he worked for a trading company in New York.

Tomoki, who has two older sisters that live in Japan, was born in 2000 in New Jersey and the family relocated to the Chicago area in the summer of 2001. Tomoki and his parents currently reside in the suburb of Hoffman Estates.

Satoshi Hiwatashi says his son was 8 when he first began to think he had a chance to really excel in the sport, after Tomoki finished fourth at the Upper Great Lakes district event in 2008.

“To me, being able to go to world juniors is a big honor,” Tomoki wrote. “This is my first time and this might be the first step for me to be able to show myself to the world. I would like to try my best and would like to show people that I can be a part of the world team.”

Reunited: Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic champion, recently did a nearly one-hour interview with The Skating Lesson in which she discussed her career at length. Yamaguchi, a yonsei, is now mother to two girls, one of whom (Emma) has taken up skating in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Emma is coached by Rudy Galindo, the 1996 U.S. men’s champion, who was once Yamaguchi’s pairs partner. Yamaguchi and Galindo, who were the world junior champions in 1988, split in 1990 when she decided to focus solely on singles.

It seems almost incomprehensible today, but at the world juniors in Brisbane, Australia, in 1988, Yamaguchi won the pairs with Galindo and then won the singles title. Absolutely incredible.

Yamaguchi, a two-time world champion, gave special credit to Canadian choreographer Sandra Bezic during the interview on TSL’s YouTube channel, who she said was “very instrumental” in her success.

“I learned so much from her,” Yamaguchi stated. “I knew that her style was something that really complemented the type of skater that I wanted to be. To this day, I think she stylistically has influenced me incredibly and brought out a lot of nuances and emotions and gave me the confidence to try different things.”

Back during Yamaguchi’s era, Bezic choreographed for the likes of Olympic champions Katarina Witt and Brian Boitano. Bezic, who was a pairs skater at the Sapporo Games with her brother, went on to work with both Tara Lipinski and Yuna Kim in ensuing years.