If you think a 52-year-old child is a contradiction in terms, you haven't met Blas Iglesias Fernandez. If you saw this coach's celebrations when our boxers made it to the quarter-finals or when Vijender Kumar won bronze, you would know what we mean.
Since starting out as a small time coach in a little provincial school in Villaclara, Cuba, Fernandez has lived and breathed boxing. “It was the only thing I was good at,” he says. “It has kept me alive.” And such is his involvement that sometimes he even forgets lunch.” No complaints.”
Often his trainees don't see it that way.”If he sees you in the dining hall, he will start talking about your punches. We used to hide form him,” Bangkok Asian Games gold medallist Dingko Singh once said.
Ten years later (Fernandez has intermittently coach Indians since 1991 and continuously from December 2004), Akhil Kumar says Fernandez is still the same. “Coach to pagal ho jata hai jab hum logo ko coaching deta hai,” says the bantamweight fighter who beat a world champion on way to the quarter-finals here.
“I had come here with dreams of helping our boxers win a medal and I am happy we have managed to clear that hurdle. Even in Cuba (amateur boxing's holy grail), people have started to know me. It's nice,” Fernandez's eyes twinkle as he says this.
In 2001, Fernandez was overlooked for Bulgarian Petr Stoyanov. Not until Stoyanov failed to deliver at the 2002 Asian Games, did India once again revert to him.”It was really heartbreaking. I was trying my best and Gurcharan almost made it to the semis (at the Sydney Olympics).” That loss still haunts him. “I still think Gurcharan could have been the first Indian to win an Olympic medal. He will always be a special talent. And Dingko could have been the best in the world….”
Even after almost two decades of doing it, Fernandez says living away from family is hard.”Sometimes, when things don't go right, I think about my wife and my girl back home.” Just as he does in his hour of triumph.
So Beijing could be his last bow as coach. “I have been coming to India so often that it would be difficult to train any other country now,” he said.”My contract ends on August 31. I don't know what I will do next. I can go back and say, 'I have produced an Olympic medallist’ and then say that's it.” Almost immediately, he adds: “But you never know. I might be back. It will be difficult to stay away from Indian boxers. They are like my kids.”
“I don't know if I can teach this present bunch anything more but this crop is fearless. They are different from Dinko and Gurcharan. They've realised that in order to win points you don't have box fearlessly but be patient and intelligent. They have so much confidence that they can conquer the world.”
According to Fernandez, middleweight bronze medallist Vijender Kumar has matured a lot and now needs to keep a level head.”Jitender (Kumar) will win at the world championships very soon and as far as Akhil is concerned, he fights with his heart.”
But for Indian boxing to head north, a lot needs to be done at the grassroots.”We don't have anything. Where are the nutritionists, masseurs or physios? Where are the biomechanics who can analyse boxers's movements - both strong and weak? In Cuba we have at least three, four coaches and trainers helping one boxer. We should not sit back and say that we have won a medal. We must say we could have won more and ask why we didn't.”