Hometown Pride: Eric Radford is now a hero in the place where he was bullied as a kid
Olympic figure skating champion is out, open, confident — and finally feeling accepted
There were so many times during Eric Radford's childhood in the small northern Ontario community of Balmertown when he considered quitting figure skating. It wasn't the kind of sport a boy should be involved in — at least that's what he was told.
"The fact that I skated was a reason I got bullied, but at the same time it was something I loved to do so much. It was an escape," says Radford, now 33. "For me it was a safe space. Out on the ice nothing could reach me. My life melted away when I was training."
Balmertown is one of six smaller communities making up the municipality of Red Lake, Ont. About 4,100 people live there. It's a mining town, where hard work reigns supreme and being a hockey player is the childhood dream.
Radford didn't fit the mould. He was called names and bullied on the streets. He'd hide away in his home — the place where he first watched Nancy Kerrigan skate in 1992, sparking his figure skating dreams.
As much pain as Radford had to endure in his hometown, he's always been proud to be from there, despite moving away at 13.
Earlier this month, Radford returned to Red Lake. The municipality invited him back for festivities to name a street in his honour after he announced his retirement from competitive skating.
It’s an incredible honour to have a street named after me in my hometown! Not only that, it’s the street I grew up on. So cool! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Balmertown?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Balmertown</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Proud?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Proud</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hometownglory?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#hometownglory</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Northernontario?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Northernontario</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/smalltownboy?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#smalltownboy</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/figureskater?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#figureskater</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/olympian?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#olympian</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/redlake?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#redlake</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/thankyou?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#thankyou</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hometown?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#hometown</a> <a href="https://t.co/8pFOImre0o">pic.twitter.com/8pFOImre0o</a>—@Rad85E
During his brilliant career, most of it spent alongside his pairs partner Meagan Duhamel, he won two world championships, three Olympic medals and became the first openly gay male Winter Olympian to capture gold (as part of the Canadian squad that won the team event this year in Pyeongchang). Radford excelled in his chosen sport despite many years spent dealing with the inner turmoil of hiding his true identity.
When he arrived back home for the event a few weeks ago, he was delighted by the street Red Lake had picked to name after him.
"It's the street I grew up on. The ceremony took place in front of my old house. It was so significant," Radford says. "I was looking at my old house, and when I was giving my speech I talked about so many of my dreams taking place in and around that house."
Some of the guys who used to bully him and make his life hell came up to congratulate him. Some apologized.
"It was vindication for me that, after all these years, they were treating me kindly," Radford says. "I don't hold grudges, but it was nice."
On the same day it unveiled Eric Radford Way, Red Lake held its second-ever Pride parade. Radford walked alongside his fiancé, Spanish skater Luis Fenero, his family and friends.
"It was pure elation. And pride," Radford says.
There was a flood of emotion for Radford as he walked around the place he grew up in — a literal trip down memory lane, filled with some dark memories that were now being erased by the sight of rainbow flags and his feelings of pride and acceptance.
If I was told I would walk in pride in Red Lake when I was younger I wouldn’t have believed it. To see the progress made in my <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hometown?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#hometown</a> and the attitude of the youth evolving towards the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/LGBT?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#LGBT</a> community makes me so <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/happy?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#happy</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/proud?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#proud</a>. Happy Red Lake Pride everybody!! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/pridemonth?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#pridemonth</a> <a href="https://t.co/ZDqepSRSsO">pic.twitter.com/ZDqepSRSsO</a>—@Rad85E
"Seeing how things have turned out and how the attitude of a small northern town like that has changed and evolved — for me it's incredible. It's something I would have never imagined happening," he says. "I think my success in skating definitely helped move things forward. I think the people up there saw me as an athlete first and then learned more about who I am and my sexuality."
Radford came out publicly after competing at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Since then he's been part of the Canadian Olympic Committee's #OneTeam outreach program for LGBTQ youth.
On Friday, Radford is helping launch the COC's first-ever "Be You" pop-up store at Toronto's Eaton Centre, part of the city's Pride 2018 festivities. The store is selling custom T-shirts with the proceeds going to the LGBTQ-supporting sports organization You Can Play.
"I feel lucky that I have the ability to make a difference," Radford says. "I feel a sense of responsibility now and it makes me feel nervous a little bit because I want to do a really good job at this."
Radford will also be joining a number of Canadian Olympians and athletes, as well as major sport organizations and teams, who will march in Sunday's Toronto Pride parade. It'll be the largest delegation ever.
That visibility is crucial, Radford says. He didn't always have role models to look up to while growing up in Balmertown and understands how important it can be for young people to see an LGBTQ athlete who is open and proud.
After all the years he spent struggling, he's now comfortable being a poster boy for LGBTQ athletes, acceptance and authenticity.
"It aligns perfectly with my story and all that I've gone through. There were so many times I thought things weren't going to be OK," Radford says. "You don't know the future. I think I've experienced that on the ice and in life."
Now, entering his mid-30s, Radford can finally start to appreciate all that he's been through, where he's come from and what he's accomplished. His wedding is planned for next summer in Spain. He's out, open and confident. He's arrived at a place he never thought he'd be — the once bullied and searching small-town boy is now at home and at peace with himself.
"I've learned so much through this all. You're trying to become the youest you," he says. "Being as true to yourself as possible is the most important thing."