rGANGEUNG — Among the messages Eric Radford has received at the Pyeongchang Olympics is one from a mother from his tiny hometown of Balmertown, Ont.
"She told me her daughter had come out to her, and she wanted to thank me for setting a great example," Radford said.
The Canadian figure skater became the first openly gay man to win an Olympic gold medal Monday. And if he's ever questioned his decision to come out after the 2014 Sochi Games, it's those raw and honest messages that make Radford proud.
"I have had some really touching messages from people who are still in the closet, and they said that I've really inspired them, and helped them to try to accept themselves more . . . that's incredible," Radford said.
"I look at my own story. When I was a kid in a small town growing up, figure skater, hockey town, it sucked. It was hard. And not only not being accepted by other people, but there was a long time where I didn't accept myself. And I think that I just look at that, and if I had someone like that to look up to it would have been easier. And that's what I want to be to other people."
Radford is a two-time world champion with pairs partner Meagan Duhamel. They were scheduled to skate for an individual medal in the free program Thursday in what was likely to be their final competition.
Canadian swimmer Mark Tewksbury didn't have that someone to look up to when he won Olympic gold at the '92 Barcelona Olympics. He finally came out six years later, and subsequently lost a lucrative contract as a motivational speaker.
"I guess for me it's a great perspective-giver," Tewksbury said of Radford's gold. "Sometimes in my life I might look back and think 'Oh, I wish I was braver. I wish I could have come out when I won.' And now I'm like, 'Oh, I would have been 26 years ahead of myself.' No wonder I didn't. I would have been too far out of sync with time and the collective consciousness, and where society was at.
"For me, it is really cool that this has happened. It is a marker in time."
American diver Greg Louganis is a four-time Olympic gold medallist, but didn't come out until eight years after winning double gold in '88 in Seoul. And U.S. figure skater Brian Boitano, who won gold at the '88 Games in Calgary, didn't come out until he was named to the United States delegation to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
"It's sad," said Radford. "But I feel like the winds are changing, and this Games has the most out athletes ever, and it's nice to be a part of that."
Radford is 33 with salt-and-pepper hair, and at six foot two, paints an impressive picture alongside the power-packed four-foot-10 Duhamel.
He's engaged to Spanish ice dancer Luis Fenero. He proposed to Fenero last summer in Spain, writing that day in an Instagram post: "Life with him is simple and beautiful."
Life used to be painful. People could be ugly. Radford, who fell in love with the sport watching Nancy Kerrigan's free skate at the '92 Olympics, has been open about the bullying he faced growing up Balmertown, one of six tiny communities that make up Red Lake, with a total population of about 4,100. He'd have to push past taunting kids that blocked his entrance at the video store.
He left home at 13 to billet with a skating family in Kenora, Ont. He moved to Winnipeg at 14, Montreal at 15, and Toronto at 16.
Radford sought solace on the ice.
"Skating was always there, whatever was happening at school, whatever was happening at home, it was just a constant in my life," he said. "I remember once I came out to my mom, and it was a couple days later, and she came in and she was weepy and she said, 'You turned out so well despite going through all of that, I wish you had told us sooner so I could have been there for you'. . . I really was kind of on my own."
And those bullies now cheer for Radford. When he returns home to skate, they come watch. Some have reached out to apologize.
"They're literally like 'I watch you on TV. I know that I was not nice to you. I was just young and stupid,'" Radford said. "And I really appreciate that they come up and talk to me. . . it's nice vindication, and it's nice to know that I've worked my ass off. And I guess in a way it shouldn't mean anything to me, but it's nice to have their respect. And to know that those people have grown up, they've matured, and they've learned."
Radford's victory was one of a couple of LGBTQ milestones in Pyeongchang. Fellow figure skater Adam Rippon became the first openly gay male on the U.S. Olympic team, and has emerged as one of the biggest stars of these Games.
Rippon helped the Americans to bronze in the team event on Monday, and afterward actress Reese Witherspoon tweeted: "Oh @Adaripp, you make me so proud ! Keep making us all so happy!''
Radford tweeted a photo of him and Rippon, writing: "So proud that @Adaripp and I get to wear these medals and show the world what we can do! #represent?????? #olympics #pyeongchang2018 #pride #outandproud #medalists #TeamNorthAmerica.''
According to Outsports, there are 14 openly gay athletes in Pyeongchang — seven more than four years ago in Sochi.
Now an Olympic gold medallist, Radford will leave South Korea victorious in more than one way.
"There are so many moments in life, or especially in an athlete's life, where you're wondering if it's all worth it. And then you step up onto the podium and you're like, yes. Yes, it was," he said. "All the time away from home, crying on the phone to my parents, dealing with the bullying, it all becomes worth it.
"It's nice to know that it does all become worth it."
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