I Left My Small Town A Bullied Gay Teen. I Returned An Olympian

Red Lake, Ont. — I grew up in a small mining town in North-Western Ontario called Red Lake. It is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with the closest city being Winnipeg, Man., which is a short five-and-half hour drive away. Growing up in Red Lake was great in many ways. I was able to play every sport I wanted and got to spend lots of time on the lake, whether it was in a boat or on a Ski-Doo in the winter. I had a wonderful childhood there — for the most part.

When I was eight, I remember watching Olympic figure skating on TV. This would not only be the catalyst for some of the most incredible moments in my life, but also for some of my greatest challenges.

In Red Lake, hockey was very popular and was considered “a boy’s sport,” while figure skating was meant for girls. Being the only boy who figure skated in town didn’t make me the most popular. Kids can be mean, and the teasing and bullying was intense. I couldn’t understand why everyone hated me so much because I loved this sport.

‘I thought I was the only gay person in the world’

From beginning to end, my career had some incredible highs and crushing lows. Whether it was fighting through an injury or dealing with bullying, I often wondered why I kept pushing myself to achieve my goals. I think my fierce competitiveness and grit had a lot to do with it, but also a simple belief that I really could be the best in the world one day.

At the age of 13, an amazing opportunity presented itself. I moved away from home to pursue figure skating at a competitive level. For the next four years I would jump from city to city and attend different high schools each September. It was daunting — but also exciting. It allowed me to recreate myself each time I had to start at a new school. Nobody knew me and I was careful to try and blend in. Over those years my skating improved and I slowly climbed my way up the competitive ranks. I also began to slowly accept myself as gay.

Coming from a small town, I thought I was the only gay person in the world and had nobody and nothing to relate to. It wouldn’t be until I met my coach Paul Wirtz when I was 15, the first gay man I met in real life, that I realized it wasn’t something I should be ashamed of.

It gets better

Of course, I would visit Red Lake from time to time, but I couldn’t help but feel resentful of the town. I was cautious walking around for fear I would run into the kids that used to bully me. Looking back on those moments now, it is truly incredible to see the changes that were out on the horizon for me.

Not only was this when my career really started to take flight, I also I started to sense a shift inside me when it came to my feelings about Red Lake — and how the town viewed me. I now believe that the attitude towards the LGBTQ community in small towns will evolve and improve more and more as time goes on. With more exposure and education, the negativity and fear towards the LGBTQ community will slowly disappear, and that’s what I witnessed in Red Lake. When I would return home, I started feeling the support of the town, and even had some of my old classmates approach me and apologize for making fun of me all those years ago. It was extremely vindicating.

Later when I competed in my first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, I would feel the town’s support in full force. The businesses in the community had signs in their windows, and the students watched from their classrooms in the schools as Meagan Duhamel and I performed.

Returning to my hometown after those Olympics is something I will never forget. Talking at the schools and hearing everybody’s stories about where they were and how they reacted to watching us at the Olympics was so heartwarming.

Hometown pride

Over the next four years, major milestones took place. Meagan and I had an undefeated season, I came out publicly, we won back-to-back World Championship titles and celebrated other amazing moments in our lives.

During the Pyeongchang Olympics this past February, my parents would always let me know that everybody up in Red Lake wished us good luck and were cheering for us. We knew that it would most likely be our last competition. We couldn’t have hoped for a better result and came away with a gold medal in the team event and a bronze in the pair skating event.

But I had another honour waiting for me back in Red Lake — a few months later, the town named the street I grew up on Eric Radford Way. I also got to be a part of Red Lake’s second annual Pride event.

I would never have imagined both of these events happening when I first left as a teenager. Looking back on my story and seeing the changes over time, in the support I received and the acceptance I felt as a gay man in my hometown, makes me smile.

I will always be a small-town boy, and Red Lake will always be home.

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