After great Worlds experience, Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez ready to get back to work

By Gina Capellazzi, Team FSO website administrator
Photos by Robin Ritoss and Gina Capellazzi

2024 U.S. bronze medalists Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez were one of three U.S. pairs teams to compete at the 2024 World Championships in Montreal in March. The event marked their first trip to a World Championships.

“It’s been inspiring,” Fernandez said of the experience.

Once their competition was over in Montreal, the two sat down with Figure Skaters Online to talk about their journey in skating and as a team, the highs and lows of the season, and their plans for the future.

Progressing quickly

Like many skaters, Plazas’ first introduction to the ice was attending a birthday party.

“I fell really hard,” remembers Plazas, who was born in Colombia, but grew up Pembroke Pines, Florida.

Then when Plazas’ older sister, Natalia, started going to college, Plazas’ parents decided to enroll then 12-year-old Valentina in group skating lessons. Soon after, she started private lessons with her coach, Britni Kelly, at the Pines Ice Arena in Pembroke Pines.

“I advanced pretty quickly,” Plazas recalled, noting that she jumped from Learn to Skate Free Skate 4 to preliminary to pre-juvenile. Then she competed for three years on the intermediate level, spent one year at the novice level and then competed juniors.

“It was great. I loved skating, I worked really hard,” Plazas said, who noted that she only had 30-minute lessons with Kelly and the rest of the time she was just practicing by herself on the ice.

While enrolled as a student at Florida International University, Plazas, who will turn 24 on April 18, also competed at the U.S. Collegiate Championships, winning the junior silver medal in 2019.

It started with a chimp

Fernandez started skating at the age of 4 after watching the 2000 movie, MVP: Most Valuable Primate. The film stars a chimpanzee who plays hockey.

“I asked my mom to take me skating because of a chimp on the ice,” recalled Fernandez, who was born in Hialeah, Florida, but grew up in Miami.

He had his 5th birthday party at the rink. From there, Fernandez did hockey until he was about 13-years-old. Then after his hockey team broke up and there weren’t many other hockey teams in the Miami area, his sister, Daniella, who herself was a figure skater, suggested he try figure skating.

So Fernandez started working with Kent and Janet Johnson at the Kendall Ice Arena in Miami. Then at age 17, as Fernandez moved up to the junior level, he decided to switch over to the pairs discipline. At that time, pairs coaches Jim Peterson and Amanda Evora were in Florida, so Fernandez began working with the two.

With his first pairs partner, Cirinia Gillett, he won the novice silver medal at the 2014 U.S. Championships. The team split in 2015 and Fernandez teamed up with Joy Weinberg. Weinberg and Fernandez won the junior title at 2016 U.S. Championships and competed at the 2016 World Junior Championships, where they finished in tenth place. The following season, the team made their senior debut at the U.S. Championships, but soon after, the team split and Fernandez took a break from skating all together.

“I quit cold turkey for three years, three seasons,” Fernandez, 28, who noted that he was offered opportunities to perform on  cruise ships and skate in tours, but he declined them.

Instead, during his extended break from skating, Fernandez took up flying and also built and flew drones. He qualified for the 2019 Multi-GP Drone Racing Championships.

But as much as Fernandez was enjoying life outside of skating, in 2019, he decided to give the sport another shot.

“I love skating so much and I like the legacy it brings behind it. That it is something fun to chase and I think that’s why I came back, to chase that legacy that everyone is trying to achieve,” he explained.

“There’s opportunity for that (flying and drones) always in the future,” he said of his other passions.

How they met

Upon his return, Fernandez helped out his aunt and uncle, who at the time did a lot of video filming for the Basic Skills Series in southern Florida. While at Plazas’ rink assisting his aunt and uncle, he was approached by Plazas’ skating director, requesting he have a tryout with Plazas. At the time, Plazas was considering possibly skating for her native Colombia. Though unsure what her plans were, Plazas went ahead with the tryout in June 2019.

“My coach, Britni, was like ‘Do what you want to do.’ She would never hold me back. She knew the potential that I had. She was like ‘If this is your opportunity, take it,’ Plazas explained. “Max would always try to go to my coach and be like ‘please let her do it’, but she was like ‘it’s not my decision.'”

But the two didn’t pair up after that initial tryout. Plazas still needed some convincing. So for the next six to seven months, Fernandez was persistent and worked to get Plazas on board. He would commute from his home in Miami each day to teach at Plazas’ rink in Pembroke Pines. While there, Fernandez said he would hope to run into Plazas so that he could teach her some pairs skating.

“During that time, we did lifts, stroking, pivots and death spirals,” Fernandez explained.

Then after another tryout in December 2019 in Ellenton, Florida with Peterson and Evora, Plazas decided to enter into a partnership with Fernandez, and the two became a team in early 2020.

Their first season together

But shortly after that, just months into their partnership, the COVID-19 global pandemic shut down skating rinks across the country. Because of that, the new team was forced to practice off-ice. Also, in that time, their coaches, Peterson and Evora were planning to move up to the Michigan to start a pairs program in Canton. While Plazas and Fernandez had plans to move to Michigan in April, the pandemic forced everyone to stay in Florida a bit longer.

“It was a beneficial time, just because I was new to everything and we had like this specific time where skating kind of paused. So it was kind of like catch up time,” Plazas said.

Once the rinks reopened, Plazas and Fernandez trained in Tampa for a few months with Peterson and Evora before moving to Michigan in September 2020. The team trains with Peterson and Evora at The Arctic Edge of Canton, which is also home of the Michigan Ice Dance Academy (MIDA), which was founded in 2022 by Charlie White, Tanith Belbin White and Greg Zuerlein.

Plazas and Fernandez’ first season was the 2020-2021 season, which was still greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many events, including the entire Junior Grand Prix Series were cancelled, and the senior Grand Prix events were held as domestic events. U.S. Figure Skating announced the U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series would replace regionals and sectionals due to skaters’ delayed training times resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The series would consist of eight events held in November and December 2020. However, with COVID still prevalent, U.S. Figure Skating decided to go to a virtual format.

“It was really hard doing the videotaping for the competitions and all that. That was really just tough,” Plazas shared.

“The video taping was the hardest and most nerve wracking I would say. Harder than competing at Worlds honestly,” Fernandez added.

Plazas and Fernandez did qualify for their first Nationals together, which would be in front of cardboard cutouts in the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. They would win the junior bronze medal.

“We really didn’t think much about placement or anything like that, it was just a stepping stone,” Plazas said of their first medal.

Making their international and Grand Prix Series debuts

The next season, Plazas and Fernandez moved up to senior, which Fernandez said the team had originally planned to compete senior the previous season but decided to start junior given that Plazas was so new to the pairs discipline. Plazas and Fernandez began their first senior season by winning the silver medal at the U.S. Championships Series events in Nevada and Massachusetts. At their first senior Nationals, Plazas and Fernandez finished sixth.

In the September 2022, Plazas and Fernandez make their international debut at the 2022 John Nicks Pairs Challenge in New York City, where they won the bronze. A week later, they won their first ISU Challenger Series medal, a bronze, at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid.

“We had so much fun in New York,” Fernandez said.

In October, the team had their first international event out of the U.S. They competed at Finlandia Trophy, where they finished in fifth place.

“That was really special,” Fernandez told Figure Skaters Online of their first international assignment overseas.

Weeks later, Plazas and Fernandez made their Grand Prix Series debut at Skate America, where they finished sixth. Just days before Skate America, the team learned they would have another Grand Prix assignment and would compete the following week at Skate Canada International after the withdrawal of Katie McBeath and Nathan Bartholomay. Plazas and Fernandez placed fifth at the event. At the 2023 U.S. Championships, Plazas and Fernandez placed fifth and were selected to compete at the 2023 Four Continents Championships, their first ISU Championship event as a team. They would finish fifth yet again.

The 2023-2024 season

The 2023-2024 season for Plazas and Fernandez started with a seventh-place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy. At both their Grand Prix events, Skate America and Grand Prix de France, the team finished just off the podium in fourth-place. In December, the team placed second at Golden Spin of Zagreb.

At the 2024 U.S. Championships, Plazas and Fernandez finished fourth in both the short program and free skate, but were able to win the bronze medal, their first medal at the U.S. Championships on the senior level.

“We have been working so hard for the past few years to get to this point,” Fernandez said following the free skate at the U.S. Championships in January. “It’s just surreal.”

When Rudy Galindo won his U.S. pairs title in 1989 and 1990, and then his singles title in 1996, he was the first skater from the Latinx community to win a medal at the U.S. Championships. Plazas and Fernandez’s bronze medal marks the first time that a team with both skaters from the Latinx community has medaled at the U.S. Championships.

“It’s really incredible,” Plazas said at the U.S. Championships, noting that people were speaking in Spanish to them as they took a victory lap around the Nationwide Arena in Columbus. “It’s such an honor to represent our community and to show people that there is not a specific heritage or specific look that you have to have to just be in skating.”

“Being the first ones, I couldn’t be happier,” added Fernandez.

Both Plazas and Fernandez said they look up to Galindo and hope they can serve as a role models to others in the Latinx community.

“I like talking about it,” Plazas told Figure Skaters Online. “I like that people bring it up because sometimes it does go unnoticed, our culture. At France, at the Grand Prix, there was people with the Colombian flag in the stands, and I’m like, ‘ ‘that’s so sweet.’ Like, they read about it and they were interested in it. It brings in a crowd who may have never watched skating, but we saw that there was a Colombian.”

“There’s not that many of us out there,” Fernandez commented.

While Plazas and Fernandez had a lot to celebrate at the U.S. Championships, they did not have much time to do so as hours later, they had to board a plane to Shanghai for the Four Continents Championships, which was being held the weekend after the U.S. Championships.

“I personally like the back-to-backs (competitions), but with all the jetlag, we had finished on the podium at Nationals and then four-hours later, we’re on the plane, and then we find out that we’re going to Worlds while we were on the plane. It was just crazy,” said Plazas.

The team finished ninth at Four Continents. Between the event in Shanghai and the World Championships in Montreal, Plazas said she and Fernandez took a lot of time to regroup and to prepare for their first World Championships.

In the short program in Montreal, the two earned level fours for triple twist, death spiral, spins and lifts to receive a new ISU personal best short program score of 61.64. Their only mistake was a fall on the side-by-side triple toes. In the free skate, Plazas fell twice in the program. They earned a free skate score of 112.51, less than two points off their personal best free skate score from Nebelhorn Trophy. However, their total score of 174.15 was a new personal best total score. They finished in 13th place.

“It was wild especially with how the crowd was,” said Fernandez of their first Worlds experience.

“It (Worlds) was a great experience,” added Plazas. “Four Continents was really disappointing for us. We wanted that really bad and I just couldn’t get my feet underneath me. So this competition just felt so much better.”

After Worlds, Plazas and Fernandez said they were planning to take a week and a half break the first week in April before getting ready for next season. Plazas said they will start planning out their programs though first before taking a break.

“Because our offseason is shorter this time, we want to have our ducks in row,” Plazas said. “We are talking about music, we have options, but we are still undecided.”

As as they prepare for next season, they are aware what is on the horizon – the 2026 Winter Olympics Games in Milan-Cortina, Italy – which now is less than two years away.

“That’s the goal, if the U.S. names us, we’ll do whatever we can for them,” Fernandez pronounced.  “We are at the top. We literally just have to do a couple of elements and we could be next to Deanna (Stellato-Dudek) and Max (Deschamps). If we could show that consistency throughout, we will get rewarded with that in the end. So we are ready to get back to work.”

Editor’s Note: Plazas and Fernandez will take part in Diversify Ice’s Skate Raiser Soul Chicago June 14-15.