Friday, 17 July 2015

Darío Villalba Flores: Spain's First Olympic Figure Skater


Although the current European and World Champion in men's figure skating is from Spain, we all know that Javier Fernandez' overwhelming success has been the exception and not the rule for Spanish figure skaters. Sure, Spain has fielded some other superb skaters over the years including Yvonne Gomez, Sara Hurtado Martin and Adrian Diaz Bronchud and Marta Andrade, but Fernandez' rise to the top has truly been historic. Fernandez, however, was obviously not the first Spanish skater to compete at the World Figure Skating Championships. That distinction goes to a man named Dario Villalba Flores and I think you are going to find his story every little bit as fascinating as Javi's.

Born February 22, 1939 in San Sebastián which is on the Bay of Biscay near the French border, Villalba was the son of a diplomat and not just just any diplomat. His father was an Ambassador to Spain stationed at the consulate in Philadelphia, the city where Villalba learned to skate at the age of eleven. After winning a competition on the junior level in the city, the young skater returned to his country of birth but the rink there didn't offer facilities conducive to training. His parents sent him to Chamonix, France to train with Thea Frenssen, who had coached skaters like the late Gundi Busch and Ina Szenes-Bauer

In an interview with Hielo Espanol, Villalba offered some insight into his competitive career, which saw him become the first Spanish figure skater ever to compete at the Winter Olympics and World Championships, both in 1956: "The Championships of Spain had three or four skaters (who) came from roller skating and the level was very low. I did a double loop, double toe-loop, double salchow and double lutz. We also worked (on) double axel. Certainly nothing to do with the level of today where children perform quadruple jumps. I was very young, barely sixteen, when I competed in the Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo (1956). All my obsession was not to be the last and I did. I finished fourteenth, beating two competitors: Australian Charles Keeble and the Finn Kalle Tuulos. Later, I participated in the World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen also in 1956 where I was fifteenth, beating a competitor, Australian Keeble again. In both cases, the winner was the great American skater, Hayes Alan Jenkins, who I greatly admired. It was an interesting experience because, at that time, being a Spanish skater was like being a bullfighter in a Nordic country." After his trips to the Olympic and World Championships, Villalba abruptly retired from skating. 


What makes his story so fascinating to me isn't his just the fact that he was Spain's first skater to compete in major "amateur" competitions, but what he has accomplished in life SINCE then. After studying law, philosophy and fine arts in Madrid, he gave his first exhibition as an artist at age eighteen. Today, Villalba considered one of his country's greatest artists. He won the National Prize For Plastic Arts in 1983 and twenty years later was given the Gold Medal For Merit In Fine Arts by the King Of Spain, who now in light of the Jian Ghomeshi scandal is most certainly not jamming with Moxy Fruvous anymore. All jest aside, Villalba's art is in fact so popular that it has been exhibited everywhere from Denmark to Japan to Miami, including in 1980 an exhibit with the Sonja Henie/Niels Onstad Foundation in Hovikooden, Norway.


Asked what he thought of Fernandez' skating in the Hielo Espanol interview, Villalba said "I was lucky to meet him when he came to my studio with a member of the Spanish Federation (Gloria Estefanell). I asked him to do a quadruple without skates and I was amazed at the height picked. I follow (him) closely and the rest of the Spanish skaters (we asked for them all, even junior). For me it's exciting to have been the beginning of what these guys are continuing." Things always do seem to come full circle, do they not?

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