This story was updated on Jan. 10, 2022, at 1:16 p.m. ET.
Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc are headed to the 2022 Winter Olympics as part of the U.S. figure skating team, but even before hitting the ice in Beijing, they've already accomplished so much.
Along with Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Cain-Gribbe and LeDuc make up the oldest U.S. Olympic pairs' figure skating team in 90 years with an average age of 29.6, according to NBC Sports. What's more, LeDuc, who uses they/them pronouns, will be the first publicly out nonbinary Winter Olympian, an especially remarkable milestone considering their sport relies heavily on gender roles. Identifying as nonbinary typically means the person does not identify as a man or woman.
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc aren't strangers to challenging tradition. Take their pairs performance at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships (which they won, by the way).
A typical skating routine might have a masculine lead saving a delicate woman. "Or it was a full on love story where obviously a male and a female fall in love with each other," Cain-Gribble told NBCLX.
That’s not what these two wanted to do. The tall stars dressed in black and gray. Cain-Gribble wore pants, not the first time a female figure skater has done so, but it’s uncommon.
“We called it two pillars of strength because the message is two amazing athletes coming together to create something beautiful,” LeDuc said.
They joined hosts Ngozi Ekeledo and Apolo Ohno, the most-decorated winter Olympian, for episode three of this season of the "My New Favorite Olympian" podcast. We hear about LeDuc coming out to their parents twice — first as gay and a decade later as nonbinary — and about reckoning with their identity and parents’ religion while moving up in the skating world.
Catch Up on My New Favorite Olympian Season 2!
Former figure skaters and current commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski also chime in, with Weir sharing stories of the subjectivity inherent in the sport and the pressures of its norms. And we hear from gender and sexuality experts on how LGBTQ athletes and those outside the gender binary can face additional challenges when competing, like pressure to fit a certain idealized image of a figure skater.
Traditional roles in skating
Gender norms in skating aren’t just about individual judges' opinions of how a routine should look or comments online about how skaters assigned male at birth should present themselves. The International Skating Union handbook for pairs skating repeatedly refers to “Man” and “Woman” when discussing the different roles. And that’s after the book was updated last year.
“The fact that the International Skating Union changed the term ‘lady’ to ‘woman’ just in June of 2021 tells you something about gender expectations in the sport,” said Erica Rand, a professor at Bates College in Maine.
When LeDuc is competing, their eye shadow and glitter make their eyes hard to miss above their thick, dark beard.
"For me, as a person that exists and really thrives outside of the binary, it can be very complicated sometimes navigating a gendered sport," LeDuc said. "[People] see that I have a beard, or they look at maybe my physical characteristics and say, 'You're a boy. Act like a boy. What are you doing?'"
Cain-Gribble hopes what she and LeDuc do at this year’s 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, if they qualify, will help other skaters feel more comfortable being themselves.
“We want people to look at our skating and know that they don't have to change who they are in order to be a part of this sport, in order to do something that they're passionate about. You work hard, you love it and you're passionate about it. You should be able to do this. You shouldn't have to fit a mold," she said.
Equality advocates also say there’s a chance for skating to be a more welcoming environment, which is something many LGBTQ athletes struggle to find.
“The fact that there are so many LGBTQ young people who feel isolated, excluded and endangered from sport like that is a dangerous space for them," says Hudson Taylor of the nonprofit Athlete Ally. "That is a tragedy that is happening at every level of sport all over this country, and and we can do something about it.”