Meagan Duhamel: I Did Whatever It Took to Become an Olympian
Figure skater Meagan Duhamel wrapped up a strong Olympic career by medalling twice in her last Games at PyeongChang. But it wasn't an easy road to success.
Meagan Duhamel poses with partner Eric Radford after winning bronze in the pairs figure skating competition at PyeongChang. Photo by David Jackson/courtesy Canadian Olympic Committe
When I was young, I used to tell people I was going to go to the Olympics one day. It embarrassed my mom, and she would tell me not to do it, but something in me just knew that this was going to happen for me.
I’m also the type of person who knows what I have to do to get what I want—and I’ll do whatever it takes to get there.
I had a lot of hardships to get to where I am today. I was a late bloomer in getting here, but I never gave up, because I had this belief inside of me. I failed to make the Olympics twice, but I knew I was eventually going to get there and I knew I was going to get a medal. I never questioned it. And then it happened in Sochi. And then again four years later in PyeongChang.
It took non-stop determination to get to where I am. It took having incredible confidence to continue pursuing my dreams and to do what felt right to me, no matter what others had to say. You’re forced to take all the difficult lessons you learn along the way and use them to push you even more. All of that, to me, is what it means and what’s needed to be Olympic.
My mom recorded my first words in my baby book. They were: mom, dad, I want it, and skate. It makes it sound like my life journey was preordained, but it wasn’t that simple.
My mom and dad registered me in the CanSkate program, which teaches young kids the basics of ice skating, when I was 3 years old. They were big on sports and we lived in a really small town—Lively, Ontario, with a population of about 5,600—so the thing to do was register for a bunch of different sports: gymnastics, soccer, swimming, skating, baseball. You name it, I did.
Each September, my mom would ask me if I wanted to be registered for skating lessons again, and every year I’d say yes.
My older sister, Heather, also took skating lessons, and as I watched her progress to a higher level, I wanted to follow her and do what she was doing. She took lessons in the summer, which I wasn’t allowed to do. My mom didn’t think it was necessary for both of us to have a private coach. I was two years younger, so I’d bring all my Barbies and toys to the rink and just sit there and watch her skate all day long, and say to my mom, "Please, please, I want to skate.” I was determined.
Even though I wasn’t allowed to have private lessons yet, I was studying the sport from the time I was six. I was watching it on TV, on VHS tapes, and reading books. I started to teach myself jumps and sit spins. I was about 9 or 10 years old when I started working on axels. That’s when my mom finally said I could have a coach. In less than a year, I went from just a single axel to having all my doubles, including a double axel. It came very naturally to me.
The real eye-opener for me was when my sister qualified for nationals at the novice level in 1999. I brought my dad to watch every level of competition at the event. By the time I left that competition I had gained so much knowledge about the sport and I had seen all these skaters standing on the Maple Leaf podium. It was then, at 12 years old, when I told my dad I knew what I wanted to do—I wanted to stand on that podium.
Two years later—after a lot of begging—I moved away from home to train at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario. The first year was really hard. I remember calling my parents one night crying and my dad drove through the night at midnight to see me. When I woke up in the morning he had breakfast with me and then drove back home to go to work. But leaving home was something I believed I needed to do if I wanted to achieve my goals. It's where my journey truly began.
It was fun. As I got older, it became a lot about performing. I always liked drama classes and dance classes where I got to go on a stage and perform. And jumping. I loved jumping and trying to do things that only the older kids or guys could do.
Some people don’t know this, but for several years I competed in singles and pairs. I loved skating and I wanted to become the best, so I was doing whatever I thought I should do to get me there.
The strain of training every day as both a singles and pairs skater eventually got to me. They were really tiring days. I actually got extremely sick and broke out in shingles in the middle of the season one year because it was just too much for my body. I liked to think that I was invincible and I could do both—and I wanted to prove to people that I could—but it wasn’t realistic. When you’re giving 50 percent of your energy to each one, it doesn’t work.
I was also working a full-time job. My parents had spent a lot of money to send me to Barrie, and both of them worked two jobs. It reached a point where I also needed to support myself. My first job was at McDonalds, and then I worked at Staples Business Depot.
I chose singles and quit pairs for a year. I started competing internationally, representing Canada and wearing a red jacket that said CANADA across the back. That was the greatest feeling in the world. But I had a couple of stress fractures and knee problems from practising triple triples and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
It’s funny how fate intervenes sometimes. Craig Bunton actually made the call for me. He was a former Olympian, he was looking for a partner, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I jumped on the chance, packing my bags, getting a part-time job to support my training and competition expenses, and I moved to Montreal in June 2007.
The move was good for me. I felt like I was finally on the path to becoming an Olympian. But after two years of competing at the world championships—we finished sixth in 2008 and eighth in 2009—we failed to qualify for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. It was devastating. I was 24 years old and I worried this was a sign that it was time to move on from figure skating and pursue other interests, that all those dreams I’d held so deeply since I was a child might not come true.
But at the encouragement of my coach (now husband), Bruno Marcotte, I began a new skating chapter with Eric Radford.
Eric and I both had unfulfilled dreams of representing Canada at the Olympics and we thought we’d give it one last chance together. We quickly gelled and became a highly ranked team internationally in our first season competing together.
Every year we set personal goals and every year we surpassed our own expectations. Finally, in 2014, we found ourselves at the Olympics. It was a surreal moment. I remember skating over the Olympic rings that were painted on the ice and just getting chills. It was truly a dream come true. And then to stand on the podium and receive the team silver medal with all my friends, it was such a special experience.
In the individual pairs competition, however, we didn’t skate our best and finished in seventh place. It was particularly discouraging because when I got off the ice, I felt regret and disappointment. I wasn’t proud of myself or my efforts, and there's no worse feeling than that. That feeling is one of the reasons why we continued to compete after Sochi.
I feel that a big part of why Eric and I have been successful is because we've realized that you learn the most from your worst experiences. When we skate a perfect program in a competition, it’s like, wow that was amazing, let’s try to repeat that. But we don’t really learn anything from it. With failures, we learn. This process is part of what it takes to be Olympic—and it applies outside of figure skating, too.
When we looked back on the Olympic season, which we considered a failure, we discovered so much about ourselves—about our training habits, about our attitude, about our mindset, about our goal-setting—and we were able to turn that all into a positive and turn our careers around.
We talked about how we’d achieved everything we’d ever dreamed of in this sport. We’d won a world medal, we’d been to the Olympics, we'd even won an Olympic medal in the team event. We’d won nationals. We’d really done it all. So what was next? We wanted to be happy. We wanted to skate our best. We didn’t want to feel stressed out about competitions.
We realized we’d been training with a weight on our shoulders the entire season, and we knew we had to stop thinking so much, almost stop caring in a way. We wanted to be happy, that’s it. When the music ends, and we hit that ending position, we just want to be happy.
We stopped trying to win, we stopped trying to do what everybody wanted us to do. Everybody has an opinion about what you should do in your career and you have to pick and choose who you’re going to listen to and what critiques you take and build on. We just wanted to be us. I wasn't going to force myself to be like him or him like me, or us to do what the judges want or somebody on the internet was writing about us. It became ridiculous, so we really just let it all go. We’d already achieved everything we ever wanted to achieve.
We were continuing to skate because we loved skating. And that’s when we started to win. It turned out that we had to stop trying to win in order to start winning. We went on to win bronze at the world championships, followed by gold in 2015 and 2016.
If this makes the whole process sound easy, it wasn't.
Life isn’t always fair. You can work really hard, you can work really smart, you can make all the choices that you believe are right, but at the end of the day things don’t always work out as you hope.
In figure skating, you’re on the ice for four and a half minutes, and the ice is slippery, the blade is thin, and anything can happen in that moment, no matter how many right decisions you’ve made and how hard you’ve worked. Your fate is also in other people’s hands, in the judges’ hands. I learned that early on with skating and it’s a lesson we relearn all the time.
That lesson can be applied to other parts of life, too. It’s not easy to let things go when they don’t work out—in relationships or at work—and focus instead on what you can control. It’s not easy to think about all the things that can go right, instead of what might go wrong. I know that as well as anyone.
I’m very stubborn, very intense, and I think a lot. I’m an over-thinker. And sometimes that hurts me in competitions because when my mind starts going it can take away from the natural passion I have for skating. I really wish I could turn off my brain when I’m skating.
Sometimes before competitions, when I’m sitting in my hotel room, I'll visualize myself missing a spin, missing a death spiral, missing footwork, see us missing a twist. My imagination can run wild. When I get to the competition, Eric will tell me to stop thinking about it. If I overthink it, my arm movement becomes mechanical. In reality, I know what to do: I need to trust my body, trust my training, trust what I do, and when I’m able to do that it leads to our best performances—like the bronze medal we captured in the pairs free skate at PyeongChang.
One thing that’s helped me with this is yoga and meditation.
Initially, I started yoga with the purpose of getting a good workout and healing my injured back. But at the end of the class, the instructor would guide us through a shavasana. This is when you lay on your back in a fully conscious pose, aimed at being awake but fully relaxed. It took me years to learn the patience to surrender in the moment.
What was the point of shavasana, I’d wonder. I just wanted to get up and continue on the with the day. Lying here doing nothing was wasting my time. This was kind of how I approached my life. Any moment that I was “doing nothing” seemed like a waste of time. I wanted to be productive. I’m a doer.
To be honest, I still struggle with shavasana, but I find it very helpful.
A lot of what helps us along our journeys, as we push for excellence, is finding things that work for us. For me, it’s been yoga and meditation. I also run once a week. And in 2008, I became a vegan.
Initially, I decided to adopt the vegan lifestyle as an experiment. I like to challenge myself, to push myself, to try new things, and I wanted to see if I could do it and what it would do to me. I noticed a lot of positive changes in my body, my energy, my sleep, and most importantly in my ability to recover as an athlete.
My recovery rate is instantaneous. I can train and train and my body recovers automatically. I think it's because of what I'm fuelling it with. I know a lot of professional sports teams in the NFL and NHL have doctors researching this now, because they're finding that their vegan athletes are recovering at a rate that has never been seen before in professional sports.
During this process, I developed a passion for food and for wellness, and I've studied holistic nutrition and taken various courses in ayurvedic nutrition and sports and fitness in hopes of developing a wellness program for athletes when I retire.
Speaking of retirement, this was my final Olympic Games.
We knew the race for a medal in PyeongChang would be pretty tight in pairs skating. There were about four teams that could win on any given day, if everybody skated their absolute best. At the end of the day it comes down to who performs well under pressure in the moment. And there's only one moment in skating. We don't get a do-over, we don't get a second chance.
Being wiser and having matured after competing for so long, I knew there were more important things than winning a gold medal. While we didn’t win gold in pairs, we did capture it in the team event, which set the tone for a performance we are so proud of. I got to finish my last Olympic Games by securing two more medals, including a bronze with Eric in the pairs competition. We obviously wanted a medal, but it wasn’t going to dictate our feelings or sense of accomplishment after knowing all the hard work we put in to get here. It certainly makes the experience that much more memorable, though.
I love to work hard, and we’ve worked very hard. I love to push myself, and we’ve pushed ourselves. For me, that’s the best part of being an athlete: seeing how far I can push myself and how much I can improve as a skater or how much Eric and I can improve as a team. We believe we accomplished what we came here to do.
Being Olympic is about that moment when you hit your ending position and you feel so proud of what you did, when you know you did your best and you can give that fist pump or that big smile. That moment now at this point in my life is worth more than the scores the judges give or the medals we’ve won, because I know exactly what it took to get here.
Getting to compete in the Olympics is everything I’ve ever wanted. And being able to do that twice and achieve my dreams with Eric is the perfect way to go out.