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Destination unknown: Gilles and Poirier, long ice dance's 'creative' team, are digging into a new side

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were having the season of their career before the pandemic halted the world - and sports. But the Canadians don't think their momentum stopped.
By Nick McCarvel

No longer content on being the “interesting” or “creative” team, Canadian ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier have their eyes on the prize – literally.

They want to win medals.

“If being [that team] was really all that our athletic career was going to be about, [then] we recognized that was something that we could just do as performers in shows,” Poirier told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview last week before the duo departed for the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.

“We gave it a long, hard think and realized if the next four years of our lives were really going to be about competing, then we really wanted to compete and we really wanted to win. Our attitude has changed a lot from the past Olympic cycle to this quadrennial.”

So has their skating. Before the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled the 2020 world championships in Montreal, Gilles and Poirier, an ice dance duo since 2011, were having a career-best season: Winning the Skate Canada Grand Prix for the first time; qualifying for the Grand Prix Final; capturing a national title; and taking silver at the Four Continents Championships in Feb. 2020.

It’s been over 400 days since they won that silver. They haven’t competed internationally since.

“Yeah, I mean, it's a long time. That's a really long time,” Gilles said, breaking into a smile. “I think we were really eyeing the podium at worlds [in 2020]. So, it's strange. But I feel like we're in that exact same spot as we were last year because we got cancelled. Like on this day, I feel totally ready.”

Shooting for the podium - in Stockholm and Beijing

In seven worlds appearances, they have been in the top 10 six times, including two sixth-place finishes, in 2015 and 2018. With four-time and reigning world champs Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron skipping the 2021 worlds, and all of their biggest foes without much competition this season either, the door is ajar.

An assuredness in that they belong with the best is helping them, too.

“I think now we're at that point where, like, we don't need to we know that we have the ability to be in the last group, to be pushing like podium spots,” Gilles said.

“I think keeping that confidence and again, knowing that we're capable of it, I think we're definitely capable: Capable of getting a medal at Stockholm and in Beijing if we continue to trust ourselves and trust in what we can do.” - Piper Gilles to Olympic Channel

The team has held over its popular Joni Mitchell-themed free dance from the 2019-20 season, going over every intricate detail amid the lockdown and false starts for events like Skate Canada and nationals [Note: See a taste of the Mitchell program below.]. But they have also started to plan their programs for the Olympic season, a keen eye set on the podium at Beijing 2022.

“We want to make sure the judges are extremely confident in the [program] choices that we've made,” Gilles added. “I think both of us are very excited to announce our programs when the time is ready.

We feel that – especially with the free dance – it continues our Olympic cycle with programs ‘for the people.’ The music really speaks to the two of us and our whole story as a couple and our journey. So I think we're very, very excited and confident with the vehicle that we've chosen [for the Olympics].”

10 years strong - and still growing

Having hit the decade mark skating together (“That’s nutso, isn’t it?!” Poirier quipped), the team has only felt strengthened in the last year, even as they have faced déjà vu with training days and no international competition.

They have dug into what many fans feel made them so “interesting” and “creative” and turned it on its side, challenging one another to dig deeper – so that they can rise higher as a team.

“I think that's what's allowed us to be as good as we are at what we do, is by continuously demanding more of ourselves and demanding more of each other as partners,” Poirier said.

“I think just taking that decision and being really conscious of it has just also allowed us to take a lot of ownership of our careers, of our skating, of our ability to compete and of our belief in ourselves.” - Paul Poirier to Olympic Channel

That belief has been especially powerful in the 400-plus days they’ve been absent from competition, a time in which the world has struggled all together. Gilles’ sentiment around the challenge of it all is one many people can nod along with.

“It's so weird to keep hitting that low. And I feel like every time you've hit that low, it's been harder to get yourself back up again,” she said of facing a year of Covid-19 restrictions. “Paul and I really had to sit down before worlds and really say, ‘Hey, we need to change our mentality here'.”

Added Poirier: “This is probably our last complete Olympic cycle. We don't really know what the future holds. We do have this feeling like this quad has really been our opportunity to really showcase ourselves to the world and to share what we can do and really enjoy being at the peak of our careers. There is a small sense of mourning, having lost some of that opportunity a year of that time where we couldn’t really do that. But I think that said, I don't think either of us is particularly worried about the momentum leading into next season. I think we feel really strongly that we're still prepared, we're still strong, we're still skating. I would say even better quality than last season because we really took the time to refine the programs and improve them and focus on our skating."

Not afraid of levelling up

Long the No.2 or No.3 Canadian team behind the likes of two-time Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir – among others – they’ve learned how to punch through a myriad of ceilings in their skating past.

With Papadakis/Cizeron, as well as a pair of American teams and an always-strong Russian contingent, Gilles and Poirier understand that their mountain might be steep over the coming year, too.

But as many in sport do, they choose to invest in the climb – no matter the outcome.

“I think it's important to be self-critical, but I think it is really hard at a certain point to go out in a competition setting and just tell yourself, ‘I've got this, I'm good enough, I'm the best,’” Poirier said. “Whatever it is that you need to tell yourself when you go out and compete so that you can go out and perform your best; I think it's something that's taken us a long time to do.”

“I think the experience that we have now allows us to also skate with more ownership, because we've faced everything and we know that we can handle it.”