By Hiro Yoshida
Three has been the magic number for Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier thus far this season, but the Canadians have set their goals higher.
Their first competition was the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany at the end of September where they finished third behind 2014 World champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte and Madison Chock and Evan Bates.
Just over a month later, they went up against both of those teams again and Olympic and World champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at Skate Canada in Mississauga, Ontario. This time they got the better of the Italians, but still had to settle for third place.
At the Trophee de France in Paris, the event got off to a rocky start when a subpar performance in the short dance had them in fourth. However, a strong showing in the free dance lifted them up to third overall.
Two bronze medals from their Grand Prix assignments was somewhat of a let-down for the Canadians who had their sights set on qualifying for the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France in December.
They have tried to see the bright side that they have been given more time to hone their programs ahead of the Canadian Figure Skating Championships this week.
“Getting Skate Canada, it was nice that we were going to be at home and didn’t have to go far, but we knew there was going to be big competition and a lot of work to be done leading up to that,” Gilles said. “But we need to be competing against those top couples. I think the more we are against them and the harder the competition is the more confidence we get knowing that we can do two solid performances and get two scores that would have been top five at Worlds last year.
“Obviously, it’s a little disappointing because we really wanted to be at the final this year. At the same time, I think the most important thing that has come out of the Grand Prix season is for us there is a lot of positive talk about our programmes. There are a lot of people encouraging us to keep doing what we are doing and I think if we can trust in that we have a long chunk of time to train before Canadians. I think that will really be a crucial competition for us because the competition is so stiff and that’s a place where we can make a strong statement. It’s really going to be just training so we can show our absolute two best performances there.”
While the Canadians are heartened that they were able to finish ahead of the 2014 World champions at Skate Canada, they know that they definitely cannot take anything for granted.
“These are the kind of things that go back and forth,” Poirier said. “Anna and Luca were ahead of us at Nebelhorn. It’s sort of a testament that we are now competitive with these teams versus being in another category below them and that’s really the place we want to be. As much as it was nice to be ahead of Anna and Luca, we know that is not necessarily a guaranteed thing. They are really an excellent couple. They bring a lot of strength to the table and I’m sure they are going to be working extremely hard too because this has also been a disappointing Grand Prix season for them.
“It’s not necessarily something we can bank on, but I think, just in terms of making the statement we wanted to make this fall, we can say mission accomplished with the Grand Prixs in that sense. We really just have to look forward. It’s easy for us to now go into a place where we are comfortable because we are content with the place we are at, but I think we have to keep striving for the next few months.”
Six Seasons Together
The partnership originally came about when Patti Gottwein, Gilles’ former coach, made contact with their current coach Carol Lane. Poirier then approached Gilles directly to arrange a try-out. On 27 July 2011, they announced that they had teamed up.
Gilles and Poirier had known each other since their days of competing on the Junior Grand Prix circuit with different partners. Skating together has helped their friendship blossom.
“We are kind of at that point where I say it’s like a marriage,” Gilles said. “We are kind of at that point where I don’t have to think what he’s thinking about because I somewhat know.
“It’s all been a learning process, but I say we have been very blessed and lucky to have found each other. It’s hard to find people as good as him. We’ve got a couple more years in us, so I think our partnership is just going to continue to grow. But I think our relationship is pretty strong.”
The lowest point of their skating career was finishing fourth at the 2014 Canadian Figure Skating Championships which meant they missed out on being selected for the Sochi Olympics. The memory of that disappointment is still painful, but it has spurred them on to make sure there is no repeat of that in 2018.
“It’s hard to forget a moment like that,” Gilles recalled. “When you feel like your dreams have just been pulled out from underneath you and you’re falling, it’s almost like you don’t know where to go from there.
“It was hard, crushing, but it made us stronger as a team. I think it has set some fire in us. We never want to feel that experience again.”
The Canadians realise that resting on their laurels is not an option if they are not only to secure Olympic selection, but also pull ahead of teams in front of them.
“We’ve been very intentional about addressing our weaknesses as dancers and everyone has their things that don’t come naturally to them,” Poirier said. “For us the important thing is just to continue to create moments with our programmes so that the audiences and judges can feel emotionally connected to the work we’re doing.
“Besides that, for us the work is really all about details now, really refining things and making moments last longer and longer, finishing off lines, thinking about where heads and arms are, unison. I think speed is still something we want to improve on. There’s no end to the improvements we want to make.
“The way things work in a judged sport is you won’t be able to pass the people ahead of you until you are so significantly better that the judges cannot place you behind them. If you are kind of on par the status quo usually stays as it is. The goal for us can’t just be let’s be as good as them. I think the work we are doing is the right work. It’s a matter of time and continuing to do it and continuing to push ourselves.”
From Disco To Tango
Part of the plan for Gilles and Poirier is to stretch themselves with their programmes. This season for the short dance they have chosen a disco theme. In contrast to that, their free dance is an Argentine tango, a rather conventional theme for a team that have relished experimenting with different styles.
“It’s kind of hard to judge and say that we did something that is very status quo ice dance, but it’s not status quo us,” Gilles said. “At the beginning of the year, we weren’t going to be very good at the Argentine tango and we weren’t very good at the Argentine tango, but we worked on that. I think again it’s just taking those things we needed to work on and make them good so that the next year we can take what we learned in those programmes and make it even better.
“This programme is very internal. You have to connect with it and let the edges ride. It’s something so different to what I’ve ever done, but I’ve really enjoyed this process because it’s made me think about every step in such a different light. We started working a little bit with Shae-Lynn Bourne and she does it naturally. She’s just naturally so oozy and feels everything so deeply and I think that this programme just forces us to do that. It’s a new feeling, but I really enjoy it.”
The team have strived to get the details exactly right for both of this season’s programmes. In particular, Poirier has gotten his hair styled in an afro for the short and slicked back for the free. It is not something he or his hair enjoys, but he feels is worth the effort to get the essence of the dances just right.
“For both programmes they feel unnatural in different ways,” he said. “For the free dance, it feels like a helmet. For the short dance, it feels like foam. It’s covered in so much hairspray it’s like a sponge. I’m willing to do it and they work for the characters. They’re the right choices, but in real life I would never put anything in my hair because it’s not me.”
Gilles and Poirier have been coached by Lane, her husband Jon and Juris Razgulajevs in Scarborough, Ontario since they formed their partnership. The influence of the British, former Soviet Union and North American ice dance schools is something that they feel has been instrumental in helping them forge their own unique path.
“I think our coaches take great efforts to ensure that all of the teams at our school don’t look the same, don’t skate the same way and have opportunities to create their own brand for themselves,” Poirier said. “That’s the culture at our training centre. It makes it really special that we can watch our teammates train and appreciate the different things that they are bringing to the table that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do.”
“We’re very lucky to have a bit of the British and Russian influence, but we’re also North Americans,” Gilles said. “We all have different styles of skating that we feed off and I think that’s what makes us such well-rounded athletes is that we’re able to pull in different things and make it into our own.”
When it comes to their programs, Gilles and Poirier are deeply involved in the creative process and have no hesitation with voicing what works for them as a team.
“Each athlete has to find what system works for them and some don’t want to have any input and some people really do,” Poirier explained. “It allows us to connect more with our work when we had a part in creating it. I think it also actually helps the coaches choreograph better for us because at the end of the day Piper and I know our bodies best.”
“It’s nice because we have the freedom to change it,” Gilles continued. “Not big change, but if we feel like something’s sticky or we don’t like it, it’s nice to be able not to have to approach a coach, especially if they are in their lessons. They’re busy with all their other teams too, so at the end of the day we have to make a call and figure out what we can make work best.”
“Each programme for us is a stepping stone to the free dance we want to create for the Olympic season and I feel that this year’s free dance is very much a marriage of the last two,” Poirier said. “There’s a struggle and there’s levels emotionally that happen between us, like the movie program (2014-2015), but at the same time the tango movement is very twisty. There’s sharp snaps separated by long bouts of stillness and to me movement-wise it’s interesting like last year’s free dance.”
Poised For The Podium
This week at the Canadian Figure Skating Championships, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier face off against Virtue and Moir and World medallists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. Virtue and Moir stunned the skating world by announcing their comeback to competition on 20 February 2016 and have been undefeated this season so far. Despite having to contend with strong teams domestically, Gilles and Poirier are aiming for the top.
“We want to win” Poirier said. “That’s the goal we’ve set for ourselves. It may be steep, but you have to set those goals high and climb that mountain or we’re never going to do it.”
Beyond Canadians, their immediate sights are set on the World Championships where they believe they are on the brink of challenging the best ice dance teams in the world.
“We want to be podium contenders and all the current podium contenders’ goal is to win, so our goal has to be the same,” Poirier said. “If we end up even close to that, I think we’ll be happy.”
“We are reaching for that podium and so are a lot of other people,” Gilles added. “If it doesn’t happen this year again, it’s just one step closer to our goal next year.”