Fifteen years ago, figure skater Eric Radford walked the halls of Nelson McIntyre Collegiate as a Grade 10 import from Balmertown, in northwestern Ontario. Just 14, he had left home for good, hungry for more ice time and better coaching after skating summers in Winnipeg as a kid.
Radford honed his skills on Winnipeg Winter Club ice, not knowing how far talent and tenacity could take him.
He knows now.
The past two seasons, Radford and his pairs partner Meagan Duhamel have ranked among the top three couples in the world. Already, they own three Canadian titles. After the duo landed on the Olympic podium in Sochi with a silver medal in the new team event, his hometown officially declared Feb. 28 Eric Radford Day.
Youngsters there have been signing up in droves to chase their own figure-skating dreams, Radford says.
"It's not just the girls, but a lot of boys. I've had so many parents come up to me and say, 'Oh, my son just idolizes you so much he wants to learn to figure skate; he doesn't care about hockey.' It's nice to see that happening up there," says Radford, now 29, who endured some tough times as a figure-skating boy in the small town 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
This week, Radford is back in Winnipeg, performing with Duhamel at Stars on Ice, the star-studded, coast-to-coast tour that stops at the MTS Centre Wednesday at 7 p.m.
"We get to go through the whole (tour) experience with our best friends and you really do become a family. It's like going on the most amazing family vacation ever," Radford says.
Those BFFs include Patrick Chan, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who also won Olympic silver in team competition and another in their individual events, Kaetlyn Osmond (also a team silver medallist), Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, as well as tour veterans Kurt Browning, Jeff Buttle, Joannie Rochette and Shawn Sawyer.
Since his one-year pit stop in the 'Peg, Radford has twisted and turned his way up the figure skating ladder, living in various cities, training under different coaches and competing with a succession of partners until, with Duhamel in Montreal, he found the recipe for success in 2010.
With their sights set on competing in their first Olympic Games in 2014, Radford proposed a bold music choice for their short program -- a piece that he had composed in 2006. Entitled Tribute, the music had been the accomplished pianist's way of coping with the loss of his coach Paul Wirtz to cancer at age 47.
With Duhamel in agreement, Radford's music was recorded by a 16-string orchestra in a Quebec sound studio. For Radford, who studied music at Toronto's Royal Conservatory and York University, the end result surpassed expectations.
"It was a big undertaking -- a big risk, as well -- but everything came together so well and I feel so lucky that it did, especially in the Olympic season. I certainly want to do more of that, sooner rather than later."
He and Duhamel won't perform their Tribute program in the Stars show, but in response to requests from fans wanting their own copy of the music, Radford made it available for download at cancer.ca/ericradford as a fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society.
"We had so many great skates with Tribute this season, it was as if when the season was done, it was retired, in a way," he says.
The pair, however, will not be retiring from competition. Trying to make the team for the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, when Radford would be 33 and Duhamel 32, remains a possibility.
Somewhere down that road, Radford would like to compose another piece for them to skate to, this time for their long program.
"I compose all the time. I'm always at the piano, writing down ideas that I transfer onto my computer and kind of produce them myself. I think I caught the composing bug after this experience of being in the studio and having my music recorded by live musicians for the first time."