Ice Network

Courage personified: Radford stands above the rest

Openly gay Canadian pairs skater named icenetwork's Person of the Year
  • Ice Network on Facebook
  • Ice Network on Twitter
Eric Radford and his pairs partner, Meagan Duhamel, went undefeated in 2014-15, but that's only one reason why it was a special season for the Canadian skater. -Getty Images

On a cold evening in December, Eric Radford ducked into a store to grab a bottle of wine before having dinner with friends in downtown Montreal. It was then that the Canadian pairs skater truly understood what he had done.

"I saw the National Post and I was like, 'Wow!'" recalled Radford, who found his own image staring back at him in one of Canada's biggest newspapers. "I knew this would be a skating story, but the paper gave it this legitimacy of some sort. I hadn't known that I was on the front page of the paper. I wanted to tell everyone around me, these random people at the store. It was a really exciting and surprising moment."

"Exciting" is one way to describe Radford's season. Alongside partner Meagan Duhamel, he won a fifth national championship, captured a second Four Continents title and notched three Grand Prix victories, all before striking gold at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships -- a perfect, undefeated season.

In the midst of those achievements, Radford came out as gay, doing so in a thoughtful and matter-of-fact way (while landing on the front page of a national paper). For all of that, he is icenetwork's Person of the Year.

The thing is, none of it was planned.

A golden year

"Meagan and Eric had a remarkable season," said Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director. "To go undefeated…you don't see that too often. They are a hard-working team. They added the throw quad salchow, and they had great success with it. All those pieces coming together, they just kept getting stronger and better."

Duhamel and Radford started the year by winning their first gold medal at a Grand Prix event, Skate Canada in early November, and they didn't lose again the rest of the way. Even for the sport's best, it was a rare season -- one that culminated with a world title in Shanghai.

"We knew all season that winning this year was a possibility, but we didn't let it control our thoughts and our goal-setting," Duhamel said. "We were just trying to focus on ourselves and what we needed to do to be better. We stopped trying really hard to win and just skated. It seems surreal looking back at it. We were just in our 'every day' and focusing on what we were doing."

It was a calculated approach: Long known as one of the best technical teams in pairs skating, Duhamel and Radford added more feeling to their performances, building a kind of emotion and flow between them that was jarring when contrasted with their elements, like the throw quad salchow.

The result was golden -- seven times over, to be exact.

Last December

There was no calculation -- no plan -- on Radford's part when it came to his coming out. It happened by way of a friend at the Canadian Olympic Committee, who approached him with a chance to speak with OutSports.com, a website that covers gay and lesbian issues in sports.

"I didn't tell anyone that I was going to do it," Radford explained. "I didn't talk to anyone about it. I didn't sit down and weigh out the pros and cons. It just felt right. I didn't feel scared. I felt uneasy about it before the Olympics, but I just wanted to tell my story. I was ready. It was spontaneous and comfortable."

After the story ran in early December, however, Radford had a moment of panic.

"I had huge waves of terror where I thought, 'Oh no, I ruined my life!'" Radford said. "It's that fear that every gay person has when you come out to someone. … There's always that small chance that you might be that worst-case story. I thought, 'What if this means I lost a sponsorship?' by coming out. I thought about all that stuff. It was scary."

But then the messages came flooding in. His phone didn't stop ringing. Radford, now 30, felt relief pour over him, hearing from friends and strangers alike. That was the evening he wandered into the store and saw himself on the front page of the National Post.

"As soon as I got the first message from someone, I was just like, 'Wow! OK, cool,'" Radford remembered, laughing. "It has ended up being a way more effective way of coming out, to be honest. I feel like I've reached more people."

Measured approach

Radford made a conscious choice not to come out during the Sochi Games last February. Had he done so, his platform would have been bigger, but the impact of such an announcement -- and how many people his story could touch -- would have been muted by the hundreds of other Olympic-related stories flooding the media in that time.

"That opportunity to talk about myself presented itself, and I took it," Radford said. "When you put a story out there in the media, you hope that it's going to reach those people in the small towns and in the situations that my story really relates to. When someone comes up to you and gives you that vindication, it makes it so worth it. It lets me know that my story is actually making a difference."

Weeks after he came out, at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Spain, Duhamel remembers seeing gay pride flags in the stands, with miniature Canadian flags stitched in their corners.

"That was really incredible to see," the 29-year-old Duhamel said. "Eric didn't talk to me or to anyone about [coming out]. I don't think he expected it to be a big deal. I saw the article and told him I thought it was great. I thought it was very courageous for him to do. But to us, we didn't think twice about it. I think that's just our relationship."

A champion's welcome

Among those in the skating world, where Radford was generally known to be gay, even if he was not out publicly, the reaction was likewise subdued. But the news cycle -- as Radford hoped -- breathed longer for him. It was a story that trickled out for weeks.

"Radford Wants to Tear Down Barriers" hollered a headline on the CBC website. The Huffington Post ran a syndicated piece. Gay outlets like Out.com were suddenly pushing Radford to the top of their home pages.

"Wow. That's a bold move," Brian Boitano told ESPN.com. "It's not easy to come out when you are still competing in a judged sport. I was impressed."

There is little precedent for what Radford did. Before him, the most prominent figure skater to voluntarily come out while he was still competing was Rudy Galindo, who revealed his sexuality in 1996, shortly before winning his first and only U.S. title. (John Curry was outed by a German newspaper days before winning his world title in 1976; Johnny Weir came out in 2011 and then had a brief comeback in 2012.)

Matt Savoie was one of the premier men's competitors of his day, winning seven medals at the U.S. championships, competing at worlds three times and placing seventh at the Torino Olympics. He came out to his family shortly after he retired from the sport, in 2006, and married his husband in October 2012.

When he saw the Outsports article, he said he was excited not only for Radford but for the sport overall.

"What he did is incredibly brave, and shows true leadership. It's a very generous act," Savoie said. "He knows a lot of people are going to be looking at him, young people thinking about how they want to express themselves publicly -- now they have this role model.

"[Coming out] doesn't have to be scary; everyone's decision is their own," Savoie continued. "Having someone skating at his level -- and being such a great person -- to look up to is great."

Savoie said he never considered coming out publicly when he was competing, but times are different now.

"The world has changed," Savoie said. "Our culture has become more accepting and, hopefully, sports in general has become more accepting, too."

For Radford's federation, there was never a question on which side of the issue it would fall.

"We support our athletes in everything they do," said Slipchuk, a 1992 Canadian champion himself. "For Eric to make that decision … we were 100 percent behind him. It was something he wanted to share. We see a lot of it in sport now."

But in figure skating, it is still marked down as historic -- much like the season Duhamel and Radford had on the ice.

"I feel very lucky to experience a season like this one in my career," Radford said, reflectively. "To be undefeated, that is incredible for any athlete. I feel like the stars have to align for everything to happen the way they did."

A kid who grew up in a tiny town in western Ontario, who was routinely bullied for his love of figure skating -- Radford could not have dreamed his story would turn out the way it has.

He said, "I feel lucky with the timing of how I came out, and it was intertwined with an amazing season. … No one can take that away from me."