This time four years ago, Meagan Duhamel was a physical and emotional wreck. She had meticulously mapped out her life up to the 2010 Olympics, and not a day beyond — and that road came to an abrupt end before she even got to Vancouver.
The pairs figure skater may have been thinking retirement, but that was supposed to happen after the Games, not before.
“In 2010 I literally felt like my world was ending,” Duhamel said. “In my head I had a plan, until 2010. And then that was it. So I felt very lost because I wasn’t going to the Olympics, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.”
The 28-year-old from Lively, Ont., who was battling injuries at the 2010 national championships, including a nerve problem in her leg that left her foot numb, finished third there with former pairs partner Craig Buntin. Third meant missing out on the Olympics. Third meant a complete re-write of her road map.
“The Olympic trials was devastating. I went for a few days where I was like: ‘Okay, I’m just going to go back to school, I’m going to move back home, I’m just going to have a real life now.’ That’s what I thought I was supposed to do,” she said. “After a few days, I already knew that that wasn’t what I wanted.”
Buntin retired and Duhamel, after spending a few weeks to heal her battered body and broken heart, went searching for a new partner.
She found him in Eric Radford, a skater she’d known growing up, and who, like herself had unrealized dreams.
Now the two are not only heading to Sochi, they go as three-time Canadian champions, and world bronze medallists.
“I was telling my parents, this could end up being the most exciting time of my life, right now, in these next few weeks,” Radford said. “We’re training for the Olympics, we’re on billboards, there’s commercials, this is when all the hype begins, and we’re right smack dab in the middle of it right now. I think I’m just enjoying the ride. It’s like an amazing roller-coaster and to be a part of it is a dream come true.”
The 29-year-old Radford grew up in tiny Balmertown, a 28-hour drive from Toronto and the farthest north one can travel by road in Ontario.
He fell in love with figure skating while watching Nancy Kerrigan’s free skate during the 1992 Albertville Olympics, and would spin and jump in socked feet on his living room floor.
He started playing piano at the same time he took up skating, and his two passions will be lovingly intertwined in Sochi in a touching tribute to his late coach Paul Wirtz. Radford, who studied at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, composed the music for their Olympic short program. Radford believes it’s an Olympic first. He originally wrote the piece — appropriately named “Tribute” — in 2006 when Wirtz died of cancer.
“My whole life was turned upside down in that moment,” Radford said earlier this season. “I don’t know where (the music) comes from, it just came out of my fingers.”
There was concern that Duhamel couldn’t possibly be as invested in the short program as Radford, so they turned it into a tribute to all the coaches, family members, friends and former partners who’ve been a part of their skating journey.
“It’s a big risk to skate to your own piece of music, we put ourselves out there as skaters and as athletes in a subjective sport where a whole lot of it can be based on opinion, and then I’m also putting myself out there as an artist, and I’m putting my soul out there with this piece of music,” said Radford.
The response so far has been almost entirely positive.
“One person said ‘It’s so boring. Who does he think he is, John Tesh?’. . . I never knew John Tesh wrote music,” Radford said, laughing.
(Tesh, better known as co-host of “Entertainment Tonight,” is in fact also a pianist. He once played with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra at a concert that featured Olympic gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Bart Conner performing gymnastic routines choreographed to Tesh’s music.)
“Like people like orange but hate red some people will love it and some people won’t like it,” Radford said. “But I think that it’s unique that I get to use both of my talents and both of my skills and when we skate I think. . . it will combine to create a special moment rather than just a performance of skating.”
Both Duhamel and Radford moved around for their skating. Duhamel left home to train in Barrie when she was 14, boarding with various skating families. Both of her parents worked two jobs to make ends meet — her mom at a hospital by day and seniors home at night and her dad, a salesman during the day who refereed hockey at night.
Radford left Balmertown for Kenora, Ont., at age 14, and had lived in Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto by the time he was 16. The two eventually ended up in Montreal.
Radford didn’t have it easy growing up as the only male skater in Balmertown’s figure skating club, and has talked about being bullied as a kid. He told The Canadian Press in an interview last season: “I just couldn’t understand. I thought, ‘All I’m doing is skating, it’s not a big deal. Why does everybody have to hate me?“’
He bumped into one of his bullies at a wedding a couple of years back. The individual apologized, and said he now cheers on the Canadian pairs duo on TV.
Duhamel has been a vegan since 2008, and credits her diet with her good health. She’s just five feet tall, but has the muscle definition of a body builder.
By comparison, Radford is an imposing six foot one. He’ll often stand with legs spread when the two are talking to reporters to reduce the height difference.
The two are leaders in a resurgence of pairs skating in Canada. Kirsten Moore-Towers of St. Catharines, Ont., and Dylan Moscovitch of Waterloo, Ont., have been a close second behind Duhamel and Radford the past two Canadian championships.
“They’re very good and I think they’re a major key to why Eric and I are as good as we are,”Duhamel said. “I think that whether they know it or not, they push us and they make us better. It’s great the rivalry we’ve created as long as we stay on top and they’re close behind, we’re OK with that.”
Paige Lawrence of Kipling, Sask., and Rudi Swiegers of Kennedy, Sask., are Canada’s third pairs entry in Russia.
Duhamel thought back to how far she’d come since her Olympic dreams were dashed four years ago and said the whole experience is still a little surreal. Their pictures splashed across billboards and bus shelters in Canada, and they’ve stopped to snap pictures of them. Former Canadian star Kurt Browning snapped a picture of himself in front of a huge picture of Duhamel and Radford.
“It’s kind of cool, because usually we want to take pictures with Kurt Browning. That was really neat,” Duhamel said.
“It is all really cool. It’s funny, I’ve been really emotional the last two weeks, every time I think about being able to say officially ‘I’m going to the Olympics,’ it makes me cry, and I get shivers, I can’t believe it because we started skating together four years ago, so it’s been a long journey, but a short journey at the same time,” she said. “We’ve been through so much and we’re different people than we were back then, different skaters. It’s a proud moment I think.”