Success has been Stephen Fernandez’s constant companion as a teacher, motivator, and a coach, and yet, many tend to forget that he is also one of the most successful Filipino athletes to date. For the past 20 years, Fernandez amassed multiple titles and established La Salle as a perennial Taekwondo powerhouse, while also giving students the opportunity to learn the sport that has brought out the best in him.
Aside from serving as the coach of the Green Jins and the Lady Jins, Fernandez represented both La Salle and the Philippines as an athlete, joining an elite company of athletes who have brought home an Olympic medal, a feat he achieved when he won a bronze medal in the bantamweight division at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. All these achievements as an athlete in both the collegiate and national level required their own sacrifices, which Fernandez persevered through with the proper balance of priorities – something a top-flight athlete would need to be successful in his field.
“I was a teenager,” he explains. “I also wanted to have my time, my fun. Of course, it had to really be balanced. So I had my fun when we were in the off-season. But during the season, you’ll never see me out of the gym,” Fernandez narrates.
It is never easy to make big sacrifices for something when your heart isn’t fully into it. One has to be genuinely passionate to be able to overcome all the problems that may arise. For Fernandez, his love for the sport began all the way back in his elementary days.
Exposed to Bruce Lee movies in his childhood, Fernandez had already taken a liking to martial arts when he was still young. Surprisingly, taekwondo was not the first martial art that he took up. He practiced karate, though only for one month, before the fateful encounter with his beloved sport. He was introduced to taekwondo by a Korean friend of his who took him to their training at the Virra Mall Gym in Green Hills. After seeing the different kicks that they performed, he immediately became fascinated with the sport. “So dun, after that, after watching [for] one day, on the first day of March, I enrolled in Taekwondo,” Fernandez shares, “I remember that day very well.”
In one year and three months, Fernandez worked his way to get his black belt and started competing not only for the Virra Mall Gym but also for his school, La Salle Green Hills. Eventually, he was recruited as a Green Jin by DLSU, where he became a key player and, in due time, a coach.
Representing the three stars and the sun
After a long time of being into the sport, Fernandez had grown an interest in playing for the Philippine National Taekwondo Team. He tried out for the team in the flyweight category in 1984, but unfortunately, fell short. Fernandez took the results optimistically though, saying, “Okay lang yun, sabi ko, total, bata pa lang naman ako. At sabi ko, I gave it a good shot.”
Lady Luck seemed to have been on his side as he was accepted into the team the following year. However, instead of becoming a flyweight representative, he made it in the bantamweight category. He nevertheless continued to work hard in further developing his taekwondo skills.
Fortunately, all the hard work he had invested into the sport finally bore fruit as he was given the best reward he could have ever hoped for when he won the bronze in the 1992 Olympics. He shared that he was experiencing a series of downfalls at that time. “When I played for the 1992 Olympics, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, terminal cancer,” Fernandez expounds.
In addition to that, he relays that his defeat in the 1991 SEA Games took a toll on him as he thought he let his country down as the captain of the team. “It really had a big impact on me because the way to get there was so difficult,” says the former Green Jin.
As an athlete, Fernandez has come a long way from being the young kid amazed with the legendary Bruce Lee and the moves he saw in the gym at Virra Mall. Through all the trials and tribulations, the DLSAA Hall of Fame inductee realized that good things come to those who not only wait, but those who also have the courage to bounce back from all the setbacks that come their way.
“I didn’t like to lose,” he explains. “I took it personally when I lost. But as I matured, [I] understood more the deeper side of taekwondo being a martial art. Those are the realizations that the losing part is only part of a bigger picture. And for me, the losing part was the one that made winning more precious and important.”