Mexican showjumper Federico Fernandez had just arrived in Madrid (ESP) by train when I spoke with him last week. He was en route to a business meeting and had intended travelling by air from Valencia (ESP), but the flight was cancelled at the last moment.
Considering his story, I asked him if he has any fear of flying. Federico was one of just three people who survived an horrific air crash back in 1987, but he has more than come to terms with the tragedy that claimed the life of his friend and team-mate Ruben Rodrigues and at least 50 others. The horse transporter carrying the Mexican contingent to a Young Riders Championship in Chicago (USA) fell out of the sky and ploughed into rush-hour traffic on the eight-lane Mexico-Toluca highway before slamming into a restaurant on a drizzly Friday afternoon 33 years ago.
“To be honest, I never think that something bad can happen to me – the place I sleep the best is on a plane!” he says.
My first close encounter with this remarkable man, who has competed at three Olympic Games and six FEI World Equestrian Games™ (WEG), was in the aftermath of his team’s historic victory in the Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ in Dublin in 2018, when Mexico claimed the coveted Aga Khan Trophy for the very first time. I moderated the post-competition press conference that evening, and in all my years in the sport I have never experienced so much immense joy and such wild celebrations.
And Federico’s words that day embedded themselves into my memory. “After what happened to me I feel an obligation to be happy, and today was one of the happiest days of my life!” he said.
His uncle, Fernando Senderos, won individual gold and team silver at the Pan American Games in Mexico City in 1975, and Federico inherited the family passion for horses. He was nine years old when he first climbed into the saddle, and when I ask him about his childhood heroes he tells me that the legacy of individual champion Humberto Mariles and his gold-medal-winning military team-mates was still very much in place when he was growing up. They swept all before them at the London Olympic Games in 1948.
“Captain Mariles rode a small, one-eyed horse (Arete) and was a fantastic rider. It was the Mexican golden era of showjumping when they were the team to beat for about 10 or 12 years, we’ve never had anything like that since,” he says.
However US riders were the big stars on his own horizon when he was child. “We heard a lot about Nelson Pessoa and the d’Inzeo brothers but they were faraway legends because we didn’t get to see them. The guys we had around the corner were Americans like Rodney Jenkins and Michael Matz, great horsemen. And at home Gerardo Tazzer was my trainer and I was lucky enough to jump on many Nations Cup teams and at the Olympics in Athens (GRE, 2004) with him,” Federico explains.
A Head for Business
Riding hasn’t been the only thing in his life, however. Federico is one of those exceptional people who successfully manage to combine careers in both business and sport. He was something of an entrepreneur in his teens. “I sold hot dogs outside my school, and then got more and more hot dog cars as I went along!” he says.
“Mexico is an incredible country that gives you amazing opportunities,” he points out. He began his career by creating companies that functioned as service-providers to big corporations. “Then a few big international companies came to start businesses and I partnered with them and ended up selling the business to them. After doing that a few times I have a business with two arms – one providing small/medium businesses with a high level of services in terms of payroll, administration and human resources, and the other providing small businesses with loans to help them grow.
“In Mexico we really need to support young entrepreneurs. I’m proud of what we do, and it makes me really happy when we can help people source a loan and build a secure business,” he explains.
However, while researching his competition profile I was staggered by the number of horse shows Federico attends. How does he manage to combine his business commitments with his sporting endeavours?
“I’m an incredibly lucky man, I have an amazing team and with today’s technology you can stay on top of your business even if you are on the other side of the world. It works well because sometimes when you are doing horses it’s good to take the focus off them for a while, because we can forget that they are animals and need some time alone. When you dedicate too much time to thinking about new things to do with them then sometimes it goes backwards! And the same thing happens in business. Sometimes you need to step away so you can see the wood for the trees…..,” he points out.
Federico talks a lot about having balance in his life. “I try to understand the things I need to get that balance, like family, horses, entrepreneurship. I love to eat and I love to travel, so I put everything in the mix and every few years check that the mix I have is the right one. Because that’s very dynamic, it changes, so you have to adjust from time to time,” he says wisely.
He is married to Spanish-born Paola Amilibia, ‘the love of my life’, who also competes for Team Mexico, and Federico has three children from a previous marriage – Juan Pablo, Eduardo and Federica.
A life-changing incident
He was already a mature young man in his early 20s because he had been through a lot. He had only just returned to competition after back-packing across Europe for a year when the air crash happened. The cargo plane was an all-but-obsolete 4-engine propellor-driven Boeing 377 that dated back to the 1940s, and it came down just seven minutes after take-off.
I ask him if it’s difficult to talk about the crash, and he insists it is not. “Incredible things came from it. At this point in my life it’s easy to say that, but if I could re-live my life I wouldn’t change it,” he insists.
His clothes were ablaze, and he suffered severe burns but survived along with two other people and just one of the horses on the flight. Hard as it is to believe, that surviving horse, Pepito, went on to compete with Mexico’s Everardo Hegewisch at the Seoul Olympic Games the following year.
Federico doesn’t dwell on the horror of it all. “Everything happens for a reason,” he says.
“It’s your will, your spirit, your determination, your power that turns a thing like this into something good instead of something that goes against you”
“Since that day I learned to not be worried about things that don’t matter, to really focus on the things you can change and not on the things you can’t, and to live every day like it’s your last. To create a life so that you go to bed hoping the night goes fast, because you really want the next day to start again. If you can make this your every day then you are a very happy person!”
He had surgery on his face at least 50 times. In the end he decided he’d just had enough of it. “The difficult part was I was just 19 years old, and when you get your face destroyed at that point in your life you have to really spend some time re-organising your feelings. It made me completely change my scale of importance, and I started looking more into the inside of things and less into the superficiality of life. And I found a lot of comfort and happiness in that.
“It made me grow up very fast and made me a person I like better today. All kids are superficial, I loved riding and everything to do with it which in many ways is very superficial. Success – or not – with the girls was important to me, and my work was all about making money. But those things changed in a positive way,” he insists.
Back in the ring
He spent six months in a hospital burns unit in Galveston, Texas, and the doctors told him it would be a long, slow path to recovery. But he was back in the ring and winning his next Grand Prix in Mexico City a year later, and in 1989 he qualified for the FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final in Tampa, Florida (USA). That would be his first, and his last Final…..
“In Mexico we don’t have an indoor circuit because of our fantastic weather, so I qualified at outdoor shows and when I went into the indoor I realised for the first time that my eyes had some issues after they were burned. When I was looking at the light that came from lamps I couldn’t see where I was, and I’ve never competed in an indoor again. Daylight is okay and in stadium lighting (under floodlights) I see even better, but the problem is lamps. My pupils are in only one position and can’t adjust, so when I go from bright to not-so-bright then it’s like looking into a cloud,” he explains.
I ask him what sporting successes he treasures most, and he tells me that every Grand Prix win is special. “I’m good at enjoying the moment when it happens. I try to enjoy it deeply because this sport is cruel in many ways, the next competition you have a fence down and the magic is gone very quickly! The good thing about Grand Prix classes is that they are on Sundays, so you’ve a whole week to feel proud knowing that maybe the next one won’t be so lucky for you!”
That Nations Cup win in Dublin two years ago and the team silver medal he earned alongside Gerardo Tazzer at the Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic in 2004 are stand-out moments, along with finishing 13th at the WEG in Jerez (ESP) in 2002.
When I ask about his favourite horses he doesn’t hesitate. “My darling Bohemio! He’s Irish-bred and the most amazing horse. He has been Mexican National champion and took me to the Pan Ams, the Olympic Games and the WEG. In the Masters at Spruce Meadows (CAN) the Cana Cup is the big class on Friday, and there were only two clears and we went into a jump-off against Jos Lansink and Cumano who had just won the World Championships (in 2006) and we beat them, it was amazing! In 2008 he was the top horse in the summer series (at Spruce Meadows) but he was injured after winning a class. That injury ended his career, but he finished the best possible way with a win! He’s 28 years old now and enjoying his retirement out in my fields.”
And then there is Gitano, “a great Grand Prix winner in Mexico, not scopey enough to do the same in big Grand Prix competitions in Europe but a fantastic character and a winner. In Mexico he gave me so many successes that I really love him, for that and for his character. These two horses were not just very special in the ring, they also had so much personality, they gave you their best every time you rode them. When you feel that your horse is completely with you and willing to do anything for you that creates a kind of magic!”
I ask Federico if there are any famous horses he would have liked to sit on, but he replies that he prefers watching them with their own riders “because I truly believe some couples are made in heaven!” He lists Hugo Simon and ET, Jos Lansink and Cumano and John Whitaker ‘in my opinion the best rider in the history of the world’ with Milton as some of his favourites, along with Eddie Macken and Boomerang and Rodrigo Pessoa with Baloubet.
And then he moves on to Rio 2016 individual Olympic champion Nick Skelton from Great Britain with Big Star. “Since London (Olympics 2012) Nick didn’t ride another horse, he was just determined to win that gold medal and he spent those four years helping the stallion to recover from a bad injury and getting him back into the sport only to show up up at the Games and win that gold – just brilliant!” he says.
I ask him if Landpeter de Feroleto, the horse that carried him to that historic Nations Cup victory in Dublin two years ago, had been aimed at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games before the world was brought to a halt by the pandemic. The horse is 18 years old now however, so hardly surprising that the answer was in the negative….
”I had planned with our chef d’equpe to give Peter his retirement tour this year, he’s been an amazing horse for many riders, he gave me the win at Dublin and also in the Nations Cup in Mexico and was very generous with me. Unfortunately with the Covid situation there have been no Nations Cups so it would be very unfair to stretch his retirement one more year. He isn’t on my list of favourite horses because he came to me when he was 15. If I’d had him since he was eight who knows what we might have done together. But he is a special horse with a huge heart who would do anything for you,” he points out.
Feredico is placing his hopes for Tokyo elsewhere, and the hiatus caused by the virus may just work to his advantage. “Coming into this year I was not in the best situation because I had a horse that was coming along but not ready. However one year more really benefits me in terms of my possibility, I have a horse that needed the extra time and now he will have it. His name is Grand Slam and I got him three years ago but he had a bad injury and was out for one year. Now he is strong and healthy and jumping great, so I think he’ll be in super shape.”
Thoughts on the Pandemic
Finally I ask for his thoughts about the pandemic and its effect. “I don’t want to sound like a preacher,” he says with a laugh, “but we’ve had the opportunity to slow down in a world that normally goes so fast. At some stage we have all felt annoyed and anxious, and in many cases – including my own – it was financially disruptive and took away our peace of mind. But we’ve been given a chance to take a really good dive inside ourselves, to understand who we are and to regain the understanding of how incredibly beautiful life is, and liberty, and the right to walk in the streets and breathe the air and smell the flowers, all of that.
“And I honestly think that you always have to believe that the best is yet to come. We’ve been given a fresh start, so now is the time to re-prioritise things in your life, to put some dreams on the table, and to try to make them real. It’s in everyone’s hands to make that happen….”