It began as a melody coming from a piano back in 2006, played by a reeling youngster mourning the loss of a man who had been like a second father. It has turned into a song that will be heard on the Olympic stage in Sochi.
Canadian figure skater Eric Radford composed a piece of piano music as a way to cope, just days after his long-time coach Paul Wirtz died of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Nearly seven years later, now a pairs skater and a medal contender at the Sochi Olympics, he has taken a leap to have the song arranged and recorded by a professional orchestra, and he and partner Meagan Duhamel will skate their short program to the emotional music on Olympic ice, beginning with the debuting team event on Thursday.
"I just sat at the piano and let the emotions come out of my fingers," recalled 29-year-old Radford, as he sat behind a Grand piano during an interview with the Globe last fall in Toronto. "It's just kind of been in my library of pieces that I've written for the last couple of years. And now that I've had the means, and it's been the right moment, we've made it into something substantial to use it on the biggest stage possible – the Olympics."
The skater from Balmerton, Ont. took the idea to choreographer Julie Marcotte, playing her a recording he had made with his piano and digitized with synthesizers on his computer.
"I loved the emotion behind it and the melody, but it wasn't suited for a short program at first," said Marcotte. "It had potential and could be really good, but having it played by real instruments in a real orchestra was essential. He agreed to be open to input and changes. He said to me 'all I care about is having the best possible product for our Olympic year'."
Marcotte and Duhamel were a little hesitant about the idea at first during such a high-stakes season, but were determined to help Radford explore it. Quebec music arranger and orchestrator Louis Babin came onboard, and they record it with a full orchestra of strings in Montreal last spring, right after the pair earned their first world championship medal together at the World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ont.
It needed to be more than a nice piece of listening music to be suitable for an Olympic figure skating program. They built the song and the program together from scratch, intertwining them perfectly. Marcotte advised on the precise moments to put the crescendos into the music, timed to big jumps and lifts, and how to pace the song to correspond with the footwork. They wanted the music to elicit spine-tingling emotion when played in the Olympic arena.
"I still shiver when I think about the moment we first heard the orchestra play it," said Marcotte. "All those moments when we wondered: 'Is this really going to work? Are we making the right decision?' When the violins began, all of that melted away. We had lots of tears of joy. We all looked at each other at that moment, and we just said 'yes, this is it'."
For Radford, hearing his music come to life was "one of the most amazing moments of my life…like standing on the podium at the world championships".
The original piece will be completely unique from the traditional music many of their contenders have chosen for Sochi. The Canadian pair titled the song "Tribute" and weaved a story to tell while skating to the deeply emotional piece.
Radford and Duhamel became a team nearly four years ago, after both failing to earn a spot on Canada's 2010 Vancouver Olympic team while skating with different partners. Both down and out at the time, they decided on one final attempt at a working partnership. They found one another and quickly learned they had Olympic potential.
Duhamel, from Lively, Ont., now 28, didn't live through the pain of Wirtz's death with Radford, but she does share his deep appreciation for the coaches and family members who have supported them over the years, so their short program to Tribute thanks them all.
"Without one another, neither one of them would be here," said Marcotte. "So when the program begins, they are looking at each other and they gather together, like they did four years ago. They finish presenting to the crowd and their families. There is a lot of emotion in it."
The Canadian pair earned two medals in their three appearances in Grand Prix competition this season and, as expected, came first at January's Canadian Olympic trials in Ottawa, where their short program received a standing ovation. They will skate the program twice in Sochi – in the team event and during the pairs competition.
"People understand what it means to us and to me," said Radford in Ottawa. "When I hit that ending position I just felt a swell of emotions, and it was just an indescribable moment."
Their status within the discipline has soared in recent seasons, but they must contend with the Russian powerhouse team of reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia. Then there are 2010 Olympic bronze medalists Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany, and the veteran team from China, Qing Pang and Jian Tong, who earned silver at the 2010 Olympics and are competing in their fourth Games together.
"If we can finish our program feeling proud of what we did," said Duhamel. "It will be a success."