Nobody expected Mark Leduc to win a medal for Canada at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. As a boxer, he was small, scrawny and elderly. At 30, although he pretended to be 28, he was by far the oldest boxer on the team.
He was not a pretty fighter, but he was determined and technically skilled. "It was hard to get a good clear shot at him, because he had good movements and good defence and he was always in the best of shape," said his long-time coach Colin MacPhail of the Kingston Youth Boxing Club. "When Mark trained you didn't have to stand there and push him. He was a leader."
After beating Romanian Leonard Doroftei in the semi-finals, Mr. Leduc proceeded to the gold medal round against Cuban Hector Vinet, a decade his junior. Mr. Leduc, who entered the ring with a ruptured tendon in his left shoulder and a fever from an infected insect bite, was beaten soundly by Mr. Vinet, a southpaw with a long reach and fast hands.
Nevertheless, Mr. Leduc was happy to win silver because his climb to the podium had been vertiginous. He wasn't the first boxer to learn to fight in prison - Sonny Liston had made it all the way to heavyweight championship of the world from a jail cell - but for an ex-con to make an Olympic team, let alone win a medal, is extremely rare.
Mr. Leduc died of organ failure in Toronto on July 22 at 47.
"He was on a mission to be a boxer and he wanted to be the best, and he became the best," said Mr. MacPhail, the coach who went into Collins Bay Penitentiary to help Mr. Leduc train. "He turned his whole life around to become a silver medalist in Barcelona."
When Mr. Leduc came back from the Olympics, he was given a hero's parade in Kingston, including a police escort, which culminated in the mayor handing him the ceremonial keys to the same city where, only eight years earlier, he had been locked up for his part in an armed jewellery heist.
"He had a very strong faith," said Rev. Brent Hawkes, senior pastor at Metropolitan Community Church in Toronto. "His encounter with spirituality in prison was profound and it continued to be an important part of his life after he was released. He had a strong feeling that he had been given a second chance and needed to give back to others."
After he retired from boxing, Mr. Leduc announced that he was gay, a public gesture, which Mr. Hawkes says "sent a powerful message" because so few athletes come out. "It is not just because of the fear of losing income, but the whole cultural thing of losing friends. Mark's courage in doing that made him a very powerful role model for the gay community."
Mr. Hawkes is distraught that Mr. Leduc was never inducted into the Kingston and District Sports Hall of Fame. It is "an injustice that needs to be corrected." He isn't the only person who feels that way.
"In a hall rife with people whose biggest claim to fame is sandlot ball and organizing house leagues, it is beyond belief that an Olympic silver medalist could be snubbed, year after year," Claude Scilley, city editor of The Kingston Whig Standard, wrote recently.
He nominated Mr. Leduc in 2000 and again in 2005, but he has never been given an explanation from the "very secretive" selection committee why Mr. Leduc, who trained in Kingston, and fought and won his first pro fight in the city, is perennially excluded from the honour roll.
Mr. Scilley, who presumes Mr. Leduc's prison record and his recent life as an openly gay man are the stigmas tainting his candidacy, is planning to gather more letters and nominate Mr. Leduc for a third time next year. "Here is a guy who commits a crime, goes to prison, gets out, is rehabilitated and never offends again. Isn't that how it is supposed to work? Don't we want to celebrate his life, never mind the silver medal?"
Mark Leduc, one of six children in a blended family, was born in Toronto on May 4, 1962, and grew up in the Beaches area.
His father, Marcel Yvon Leduc, was a disabled veteran from the Korean War and his mother Patricia was an English-born seamstress.
His life was problematic from his birth, 10 minutes after the arrival of his twin sister Michelle. Both babies were breech and premature, but Mark was smaller and sicklier and he spent longer in the hospital than his more robust sister.
Short, scrawny, shy, snub-nosed with freckles and strawberry-blond hair, he was picked on by bigger kids at Leslie Street Public School. At 12, he responded to a dare by putting his left arm in a manhole, only to have the heavy cover crash down through muscle and bone, almost severing his arm.
His arm recovered, but he couldn't heal festering problems with his sexual identity, the breakdown of his parents' marriage and his own propensity to camouflage his emotions by acting out as a tough bad boy. At 15, he dropped out of Danforth Technical School and was living on the streets.
"I was a problem kid," he said later. "I think a lot of it snowballed from not dealing with my sexuality, not accepting it."
While still in his teens, he was injecting cocaine and speed. He stole money and turned tricks to feed his addictions. Eventually he was convicted of breaking and entering, possession of narcotics and other crimes.
At 18, he seemed to be straightening out with the help of friends and the influence of the late Tony Unitas, who had founded the Toronto Newsboys Boxing Club in the east end, but he slid down the pole again in May, 1984, when he was persuaded to help a diehard thief, nearly twice his age, rob a jewellery store.
The older man held a gun to the owner while Mr. Leduc snatched nearly $40,000 in gold rings, chains, coins and other stuff. For his part, Mr. Leduc, then 22, was sentenced to 61/2 years in Collins Bay, a medium-security federal institution called Disneyland because of its resemblance to the castle in Fantasyland.
The day he was hustled through the prison doors in chains and handcuffs, a gang of inmates jumped a fellow con in the weight room, beat him savagely and stabbed him in the neck. The sirens were wailing as the guards locked down the institution and incarcerated their newest inmate. Mr. Leduc was so terrified that he dropped on his knees in his cell and began praying for salvation, promising to be one of the faithful if he could only get out of prison.
"This was the single thing that changed my life," Mr. Leduc told The Toronto Sun in August, 1992. "I was confused and fearful and I didn't know what to expect. But when I first went to church and met the people, saw the light shining off their faces, saw the joy in their eyes, I just opened myself up. That got me moving uphill again."
On a more secular level, fear also made him think about boxing as a way to protect himself and to fill the empty hours when he wasn't reading his Bible or working in the prison kitchens. He cut the sleeves from a parka, stuffed them with foam, wrapped them around this hands and strapped them together with shoelaces wound around his wrists. Thus equipped, he pounded away on a heavy bag in the exercise yard or against other inmates who were willing to be sparring partners.
Mr. Leduc's guardian angel turned out to be a friendly guard, Muriel (Boots) MacPhail, who told her brother, Colin, about the young inmate with the increasing prowess with his fists. "I went in to meet this little red-headed kid," said Mr. MacPhail, "and I taught him for a while and then I got to know him a bit and we started to communicate better and I did some training with him in the pen."
Eventually, a reluctant warden issued day passes so Mr. Leduc could leave the prison to train for 72 hours a month in a real gym. Gradually, under Mr. MacPhail's tutelage, Mr. Leduc began using some of his "free" time for actual fights, travelling to the ring wearing chains and cuffs and under heavy guard.
When he was paroled on good behaviour in September, 1987, after serving less than half his sentence, he stayed in Kingston, got a job and trained with Mr. MacPhail. He built up an impressive amateur record, winning 184 bouts while losing only 26, and travelled to Europe and the Caribbean to buff his resumé with international exposure as a fighter. In the early 1990s he moved back and forth between Kingston and Toronto, training with Mr. MacPhail and with Adrian Teodorescu, the man who had coached Lennox Lewis to a gold medal in the super-heavyweight category in Seoul in 1988.
Luck finally began shining on him. He made the national boxing team for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. And then the draw, which matches fighters in the elimination rounds, didn't pit him against any of the heavy medal favourites early on, meaning that he was almost guaranteed a bronze.
After the Games, flushed with his silver win and his triumphal parade in Kingston, he announced he was retiring from the ring and going back to school, but he quickly changed his mind. Even though he was not "a banger," he embarked on a professional boxing career. "Turning professional is an opportunity to make money, have fun and beat up people," he said.
Mr. Leduc won his first pro fight by trouncing Detroit fighter (Jazzy) Jeff Williams at the Memorial Centre in Kingston in November, 1992. Although Mr. Leduc had an impressive 6-1 record as a pro boxer, he hung up his gloves in September, 1994, after less than two years.
The following day he told sports reporters that he was coming out of the closet to fight homophobia. "One-third of all teen suicides are because of social orientation," he said at the time. "The dreams of our young people are being taken away because of the fear and stigma. And it's about time we do something about it."
Nine months later he drove the point home when he appeared at a black tie Canadian Olympic Association gala in North York dressed in a high-cut kilt and accompanied by his friend Jackie (Zackae) Baker, a transvestite. "I really just wanted to drop a few chins," he said. "I'm sure they won't invite me back again to this thing next year, but I don't really care."
Mr. Leduc continued to struggle to find a sustainable post-fight career, but he never lost his religious faith or his interest in speaking inspirationally to kids at schools and other venues, especially in the gay community. Among other activities, he was grand marshal of the Gay Pride Parade in June, 1999, the same month he spoke with Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury at a community fundraiser a Buddies in Bad Times Theatre called "Sports Heroes: Paving the Way for Queer Youth."
His partner, Will Wheeler, was at work when Mr. Leduc decided to have a sauna at a Toronto hotel on a Saturday night last month and probably fell asleep. Early the next morning he was rushed to St. Michael's Hospital, suffering from extreme heat prostration.
Mr. Hawkes was at the hospital as Mr. Leduc's and Mr. Wheeler's families gathered in a vigil. "Hearing both families talk about how Mark had turned his life around and how that had been a very positive influence on other people was very moving," said Mr. Hawkes. "He was a real fighter in a variety of senses."
Mr. Leduc leaves his partner Will, his parents, four sisters and his extended family.