Eric Radford remembers going to the video store as a kid in tiny Balmertown, the farthest north one can travel by road in Ontario. A group of kids stood smoking outside and Radford had to push his way through them as they taunted and teased him.
Meagan Duhamel comes from Lively, Ont., where both her parents worked two jobs — her mom’s work day stretched from 8 a.m. to midnight — to finance her figure skating.
Radford moved away from home when he was 13, Duhamel at 14. Their paths would eventually cross years later in Montreal where the two teamed up after neither qualified for the Vancouver Olympics.
The two-time Canadian pairs champions will be gunning for gold this week at the Four Continents championships in Osaka, Japan, a final tune-up for the world championships next month in London, Ont.
“I think we were just a fork in the road,” Duhamel said of teaming up with Radford. “We were either going to quit or we were going to give it one last go.”
For Radford, that road started in his northern Ontario hometown that’s a 28-hour drive from Toronto and home to 1,000 people and one arena. The 28-year-old fell in love with skating while watching Nancy Kerrigan’s free skate during the 1992 Albertville Olympics.
“I became enthralled with skating, I used to try to do skating moves in my living room, try and do jumps and stuff,” Radford said.
But skating was a girl’s sport, and his classmates let him know it.
“A lot of name-calling,” Radford said. “Whenever there was a group and I was by myself, they’d always make fun of me. It was really hard. 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?'”
Radford came face-to-face with one of his bullies at a wedding two summers ago.
“I hated him so much, he said. “But he actually came up to me and said, ‘Eric, I just want to apologize for back in Grade 7 and 8, when I used to make fun of you. I was young and stupid. I watch you all the time on TV now, and I’m always cheering for you and I think it’s amazing what you’ve done.’
“I was like, ‘Wow, thank you very much, it means a lot to have you say that.’ Even though it was so long ago, it was really nice to kind of have that vindication.”
The 27-year-old Duhamel literally grew up next door to an ice rink in Lively. Her sister and her aunt both skated. Her dad, brother and cousins all played hockey.
When she turned 14, she asked to move to Barrie for better coaching and more ice time at the Mariposa School of Skating.
“I remember begging my mom to let me move. For one month, I cried and I begged and I screamed and I threw a fit like a little brat,” Duhamel said. “I couldn’t understand why my mom wouldn’t let me, because I was like, ‘If I want to be the best, I need to go skate and train with the best.'”
For the first few years, she boarded with skating families — a different one every year.
“The first year was really hard,” she said. “I remember calling my parents one night crying and my dad drove through the night at midnight and when I woke up in the morning he had breakfast with me and then drove back home to go to work.”
The cost of her skating took a toll on her family. Her mom worked in the accounts receivable department at a hospital during the day and at a seniors home at night. Her dad was a salesman who spent his nights at the rink refereeing hockey.
The two say their parents practically raised them over the phone. Radford moved alone to Kenora, Ont., at 14, Winnipeg at 15, Montreal at 15 and Toronto at 16 — a different high school every year.
“That was a challenge,” he said. “Skating was my platform and my base. I always had the rink to go to, and if I was sad off the ice, skating always made me happy. If I was homesick I had skating there to keep me busy and always stay focused on. It was a sport that I loved, but it also got me through those really hard times.”
Duhamel eventually moved to Montreal in 2007, and Radford two years later.
Their coaches suggested they team up after the 2010 Olympic trials, where Duhamel was third with Craig Buntin — who’s now retired — and Radford was eighth with Anne-Marie Giroux.
“That first day we tried to skate together was awful. We couldn’t do anything. It was so bad,” Duhamel said. “Our coaches were like, ‘This is good, it’s going to work.’ We were like, ‘What are you thinking?’ But we put our trust in them, and it turned out that they did know what they were talking about.
“We weren’t ready to give up on our Olympic dream. Everything ended up falling into place the way you always dream things will fall into place.”
Duhamel and Radford finished fifth at last year’s world championships. They edged Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch for gold at the Canadian championships last month, and while domestic scores tend to be inflated, their 206.63 points would have earned them gold at last year’s worlds in Nice, France.
“That long program, internationally, still would have scored over 130 points and it would still would put us on a podium,” Duhamel said.
Russian teams dominate pairs skating, led by Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov and Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov are also medal contenders at any international event. Then there’s four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany.
Pang Qing and Tong Jian should be the Canadians’ stiffest challenge at this week’s Four Continents event, which begins Thursday with the short dance. The Chinese team was third at the Grand Prix final in December, while Duhamel and Radford were fourth.
“Definitely our goal is to win Four Continents,” Duhamel said.
Canada’s world and Olympic ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will battle American rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Davis and White narrowly beat the Canadians for gold at the Grand Prix Final.
Kaetlyn Osmond, 17, is the lone Canadian in women’s singles. Two-time world champion Patrick Chan is skipping the Four Continents to focus on the world championships.