The 2022 Winter Games in Beijing marked the first Olympic appearance for figure skater Timothy LeDuc, but when they hit the ice for the pairs skating program on February 18, they ushered in a first for the entire Olympics: LeDuc became the first openly non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Games, according to NBC Olympics. This comes six months after Canadian soccer star Quinn became the first openly transgender athlete to compete at the Summer Games in Tokyo.
LeDuc, who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, competed along with skating partner Ashley Cain-Gribble in the pairs skating short program. At the end of the event, LeDuc and Cain-Gribble were in seventh place with a score of 74.13, one place behind another Team USA pair, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.
The leaders, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong from China, set a new world record for the highest score in a pairs short program with an 84.41. The top 16 pairs will advance to the free skating event on February 19. The scores from both the short program and the free skate are then added together; the pair with the highest score after both events will be the winner.
“It was such a joyous moment for us out there today,” LeDuc said to the Associated Press. “I think both Ashley and I have had to overcome so many different things, so many times, where people told us no or we don’t belong.”
The pair, who won their second national title in January and have competed together since 2016, have often found themselves at odds with figure skating’s traditional culture, according to CNN.
For one, pairs skating often plays off a romantic storyline in their routines, where “the man comes in to save the woman,” LeDuc said. While they say that there’s nothing inherently wrong with these storylines, it’s something they and Cain-Gribble have never done together. Their programs emphasize the strength of both skaters, and they often perform many of the same moves together—not just, as Cain-Gribble told USA Today after their Olympic debut, “the girl being lifted and the male partner just kind of standing there and lifting them.” Their free skate routine also has them competing in matching gray leotards, different from most pairs routines where the female partner wears a dress.
“We’ve always been about equality and showing two amazing athletes coming together to create something beautiful,” LeDuc said to CNN.
Both members of the pair have also struggled with stereotypes affecting them individually as well. Cain-Gribble, who at 5’6” is taller than most female pairs skaters, has spoken previously about how body shaming the sport nearly forced her into retirement. And LeDuc has struggled with feeling like they have to portray masculinity on the ice.
“Masculinity always felt forced, it always felt like something I had to do to feel safe, something I had to do to be successful or to be taken seriously,” LeDuc told Team USA. “It was never authentic to me. I feel so much more whole now, identifying outside of manhood.”
Speaking to NBC Sports in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, LeDuc said that that while they want to share their story, they also hope the narrative isn’t focused only on them being the first non-binary athlete. Instead, they said, they want people to recognize that “queer people can be open and successful in sports.” They’re also hoping that their and Cain-Gribble’s story can help inspire the next generation of skaters.
“Hopefully, people watching us can feel like they can lead with authenticity, that they don’t feel like they have to change things about themselves in order to reach their success in sport and to chase their dreams,” LeDuc said to CNN.