Radford was the only boy who was a figure skater growing up in a small Ontario town. Now the Canadian pairs skater says he wants to use his spot on the podium to “try to make things better” for other LGBTQ people.
PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—When Eric Radford was a kid he wanted to be a pilot, and then when he saw figure skating he thought that was as close as you could come to flying. He was the only boy who was a figure skater in Red Lake, Ont. — Balmertown, really, one part of the six-town amalgamation that totals just 4,107 people over an area about the same size as the city of Toronto. Viewed from a distance, it sounds like the start of a movie.
“It’s a gold-mining town, in the north, hockey town, male figure skater,” said his older brother Richard. “And the only one. It was very hard for him.”
Except most lives that start that way — kid gets bullied, discovers he’s gay, leaves home to follow a dream at 13 — they don’t end the way most movies do. Suicide rates are higher for LGBTQ kids than for straight kids; they get bullied more, and are more likely to experience homelessness.
Eric Radford is the movie. The 33-year-old won silver in team figure skating in Sochi; this year Canada won gold, and with that Eric Radford made history: the first openly gay male athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
“That just brings a smile to my face,” he says. “I think it’s incredible; I feel very proud. And I think it’s an opportunity I want to use to try to make things better.”
There have been gay gold medallists before, of course, but being out is newer. Radford wanted to do it before Sochi, but didn’t. He had already come out to his parents when he was 18; he waited until his dad was in the washroom before telling his mom. Everything else took longer.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s going to change everything between us,’” says his mother Valerie, a retired schoolteacher.
“And I said, nothing’s ever going to change. And he told me, because he didn’t know how to tell his dad. So he told me, and I said, ‘so?’”
“So what?” echoes her husband Rick, a mine inspector, smiling. “Of course, so what?”
Eric Radford played a lot of sports, like his big brother Richard before him: swimming, gymnastics, cross-country skiing, baseball, and skating. But he watched Nancy Kerrigan in the 1992 Olympics and fell in love. He got teased, bullied, pushed around. Richard was five years older, a lifetime for kids, and he would see the aftermath, his little brother in tears. Eric discovered he was gay when puberty hit: he just knew. Like many gay kids, it was difficult.
“When I was a kid in a small town growing up, figure skater, hockey town, it sucked,” says Radford, in a quiet moment after he and Meagan Duhamel had completed the first of their pairs programs, placing third in the short, with a chance at a medal Thursday. “It was hard. And not only not being accepted by other people, but there was a long time where I didn’t accept myself. And that took time. And I think that I just look at that, and if I had someone like that to look up to it would have been easier. And that’s what I want to be to other people.”
It is such a common story, even though every one is individual. He swore he would simply not be gay, that he would be like other people. He didn’t tell anybody. When he was 13 he decided he had to go somewhere bigger to follow skating, like swimming after a life raft; his parents found a billet in Kenora, then in Winnipeg, then in Montreal. They sent their little boy away because he needed it more than anything, even his parents.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previously published version to clarify Eric Radford is the first openly gay Winter Olympian to win a gold medal.