‘Live every day like it’s your last’: meet the plane crash survivor who has ridden at three Olympics

  • “I never think that something bad can happen to me – the place I sleep the best is on a plane,” says Mexican showjumper Federico Fernandez.

    The reason this statement is so surprising is that 33 years ago, Federico was one of just three people who survived a plane crash in which more than 50 people were killed. The cargo plane carrying horses and members of the Mexican Equestrian Federation to a young riders championship in Chicago crash landed shortly after take-off, hitting rush-hour traffic on the eight-lane Mexico-Toluca highway before ploughing in to a restaurant. Amazingly, one horse, Pepito, survived and went on to compete at the Seoul Olympic Games the following year.

    Federico escaped with his clothes ablaze but he suffered severe burns and spent six months in a hospital burns unit in Texas, undergoing more than 50 rounds of surgery to his face.

    “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,” he explains. “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. I found a lot of comfort and happiness in that.”

    Despite this horrific ordeal, the 52-year-old rider has gone on to compete in three Olympic Games, the 1989 World Cup Final, six world championships and two Pan Am Games, where he won team silver.

    “Incredible things came from it,” he insists. “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.

    “It’s your will, your spirit, your determination and your power that turns something 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.”

    In 2018, he was part of the Mexican Nations Cup team which lifted the Aga Khan Trophy in Dublin for the first time.

    “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 at the time.

    The only thing he’s limited by since the accident is his vision, which makes competing indoors too difficult.

    “Daylight is ok and in stadium lighting [under floodlights] I see even better, but the problem is lamps,” he explains. “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.”

    Amazingly he combines the sport he loves with a hectic career as a businessman.

    “With today’s technology you can stay on top of your business even if you are on the other side of the world,” he says. “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.

    “I try to understand the things I need to get that balance, like family, horses and entrepreneurship,” he adds. “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 talks equally philosophically about the current worldwide pandemic.

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    “I don’t want to sound like a preacher, but we’ve had the opportunity to slow down in a world that normally goes so fast,” he says. “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.”

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