SAINT JOHN, N.B. - Eric Radford has always found solace in the keys of his piano, so when his coach Paul Wirtz died of cancer in 2006, Radford sat down and just played.
"My whole life was turned upside down in that moment," Radford said. "I don't know where (the music) comes from, it just came out of my fingers."
The song Radford composed that day — aptly called "Tribute" — is the music he and pairs partner Meagan Duhamel are skating their short program to this season. It's both a way of remembering his late coach, and a touching tribute to all the people who have helped the two skaters over the course of their careers.
"It's for all the coaches, all the family, all the friends, and the partners we've had before, everybody who's been there along our journey," said Duhamel.
Radford and Duhamel, favourites for a medal at the Sochi Olympics after claiming bronze at the world championships last spring, will debut their short program for a global audience Friday at Skate Canada International.
The 28-year-old Radford grew up in Balmertown — the northernmost town reachable by car in Ontario and a 28-hour drive from Toronto — and began playing the piano at eight, the same year he started skating.
His love of music is part of what first drew him to skating, and his two passions have been intertwined since.
"Music through my whole skating career has provided the biggest balance, because there's been ups and downs, but when I can go home and sit at my piano, it clears my mind completely, and everything is back to normal," said Radford, who studied at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music and is working on his Grade 10.
Friends who've heard Radford play had encouraged him for years to skate to a piece of his own music. It helps, he said, that the type of music he writes is "very skateable."
"It's emotional, it's something you might hear on a film soundtrack," Radford said. "I'm very lucky my two major talents, skating and music, are able to complement one another and come together in a moment like this."
The 28-year-old Radford is always at his piano "fiddling around," and figures he's composed hundreds of songs over the years, but knew if he ever skated to one it would be this particular piece, which he describes as more "inspirational" than sad.
He worked with Canadian composer Louis Babin to arrange the music for an orchestra and then in April, they recorded the song in a Montreal studio with a 16-piece string section.
"That was a whole experience in itself, it was a spiritual experience hearing my music come to life in the studio," Radford said.
The only concern for Duhamel, a 27-year-old from Lively, Ont., was that she wouldn't be as emotionally invested in the music as her partner — hence the decision to make the song a tribute to all the people in their lives.
"I think (using the music) was a good idea, and I think there's no better time to do it than at the Olympics, when the whole world will be watching and they'll see it," Duhamel said. "That's the most inspirational time of our careers that we're going to have."
Still, in a sport in which the same pieces of music are continuously regurgitated — think of the "Battle of the Carmens" between Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas at the 1988 Calgary Games — Radford knew that using an original piece of music, composed by himself no less, was an Olympic-sized risk.
"We put ourselves out there as skaters and as athletes in a subjective sport where a whole lot of it can be based as opinion. And I'm also putting myself out there as an artist, and putting my soul out there with this piece of music," he said.
"People like orange but hate red, so some people will love it or not like it. But it's unique that I get to use both of my talents, and when we skate to the music, I think it will combine to create a special moment rather than just a performance of skating."
American Timothy Dolensky has skated to piano music he's composed, and Radford and Duhamel have been told a Ukrainian skater in the '90s did the same thing. But the Canadians believe it will be a first for an Olympics.
Wirtz was 47 when he died of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Among the skaters he'd coached were his brother Kris Wirtz and pairs partner Kristy Sargeant.
Radford plans to someday pursue his music to the same degree that he's pursued skating, perhaps working producing, or writing for film or video games.
Their free program, meanwhile, is to "Alice in Wonderland."
"Both programs are eye-popping," Duhamel said, "and they will stand out compared to what everyone else is doing."