TORONTO — Balmertown, Ontario, once held painful memories for Eric Radford. Growing up as the only figure skater in the tiny hockey town of 4,000 residents in northern Ontario, he was mercilessly bullied.
Radford became the first openly gay athlete to win a Winter Olympic gold medal, and his skating success took him back to Balmertown recently. He was elated to find antiquated attitudes have changed there.
The town named a street in his honour. He marched in a pride walk hand in hand with fiance Luis Fenero. But perhaps the most touching moment came during an elementary school talk when a young girl presented him with a picture she’d drawn. It was a replica of the Instagram photo of Radford’s marriage proposal to Fenero. Radford is down on one knee, and the couple is set against a rainbow background.
“She told me ‘Everybody knows you for your athletic accomplishments, but your story and you being open about your sexuality means so much to me, and I wanted to let you know that,'” Radford said, pulling the folded picture from his jeans pocket. “I was just so touched. I was flabbergasted that a Grade 8 girl from this small town that has such little exposure to these types of issues had the insight and the maturity to give something like this to me.
“I shared it on social media, and got so many amazing comments from people. It didn’t just inspire me, I think it inspired our whole community.”
The 33-year-old, who with pairs partner Meagan Duhamel retired after the Olympics, kicked off the Canadian Olympic Committee’s “Be You” campaign on Friday ahead of Pride weekend in Toronto. The COC launched a pop-up store selling “Be You” T-shirts at a downtown Toronto mall, with proceeds going to You Can Play, a campaign dedicated to the eradication of homophobia in sports.
Radford came out publicly in December of 2014. He’d considered it a year earlier ahead of the Sochi Olympics, but his family, fearful of the political climate in Russia, worried for his safety. And he worried about how it might affect his skating career with Duhamel.
“Especially in a pair team, people always want to have the idea that you have a romantic connection on the ice,” said Radford — consider the rampant relationship chatter around ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
“So if I were to come out publicly, and people were to know me as gay, maybe they would lose that sense, and maybe — maybe — it would affect our marks and the judges’ perception of us when they’re watching us. But that didn’t happen at all.”
Radford and Duhamel, in fact, would go undefeated that season and capture their first of back-to-back world titles.
“I had a lot of one-on-one conversations with officials and judges and coaches that were like ‘We’re really proud of you, good for you,'” Radford said.
The 25-year-old Fenero, who was a Spanish ice dancer before retiring this past winter, said coming out wasn’t easy for his famous fiance.
“I think it was a surprise for him. The way it happened, he gave an interview, and then that interview was on the front page of the newspaper in Montreal, so he was walking around Montreal and he saw that his face (on the front page),” Fenero said. “So I think he was not expecting that it was going to go that big.”
Fenero watched Friday as Radford, dressed in black runners with rainbow soles, gave his keynote address to an afternoon shopping crowd. Radford walked over to give his future husband a quick kiss before media interviews.
“In Pyeongchang it became the history that he was the first openly gay to win a gold medal, so of course I’m super proud, what more can you ask?” said Fenero, who will marry Radford next summer. “He’s had a great career, and a great way to finish his career also.”
Inclusion became a theme of the Pyeongchang Games, thanks largely to the popularity of athletes like figure skater Adam Rippon and skier Gus Kenworthy, who became the first openly gay males on a U.S. Olympic team.
“I really sensed a feeling of momentum being built for the LGBT athletes,” Radford said. “I think if you compare over the last quad, from Sochi to Pyeongchang, there was a big difference, there were a lot more out athletes, and I feel like it’s becoming more and more of a non-issue. And you have other highly visible athletes like Gus, like Adam continuously spreading that message of acceptance, tolerance, just safety and inclusion in sport. I think that we’re making great strides.”
The COC launched its One Team program in December of 2014, which sees 54 athlete ambassadors speak to schools and organizations across Canada about inclusion in sports.
Canadian Olympic athlete are expected to march in a group 165-strong in Sunday’s Pride parade alongside representatives from the Toronto Blue Jays, the NHL, the NHLPA, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, You Can Play, and Ryerson Athletics.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said Radford was the first openly gay Olympic champion instead of winter Olympic champion.