Gilles and Poirier: Long And Winding Road Puts Canadians Poised As Strong Contenders For World Title

By Hiro Yoshida

Things did not go according to plan for Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier last season, but by reconnecting with their love for skating they are back on track for this week’s World Championships.

The Canadians began their season at Skate Canada International where they claimed their third consecutive home Grand Prix title. They followed that up with another victory at Grand Prix of Espoo in Finland and topped the Grand Prix Final qualification standings. At the Grand Prix Final in Turin in December 2022, they won both segments of the event to nab the gold medal and one of the most significant achievements of their long partnership.

“I think we’ve taken a step back from putting the pressure on ourselves to win medals, to put high scores up, to be better than we’ve ever been,” Gilles explained. “That’s really just let us be comfortable and confident in who we are and let the enjoyment of skating show. It’s made us confident. It’s made us strong. It’s kind of done the opposite effect of everything I’ve just said, because we’ve just enjoyed the programs and performances each time. It’s a different approach this year, but it seems to be working for us.”

The combination of the isolation of the pandemic and the hectic and stressful nature of the Beijing Olympic season had been draining for Gilles and Poirier. It was clear to them that they needed some time off to evaluate their options. Gilles also got engaged to Nathan Kelly in June 2022 and married him at a small private ceremony in September last year.

“I think more than anything we were just exhausted and tired and burned out,” Poirier said. “We did two really important things – the first is that, after the season, we got to go on tour with Stars on Ice and do shows and perform for audiences again for the first time in two years. That was a really nice experience to just have that feeling back again of performing in front of people and just to skate in a different context. Then the second thing we did was we took a lot more time off than usual at the end of the season. We really gave ourselves the time to rest, to invest in ourselves as people, which we’ve done so little throughout the Olympic season, especially with the pandemic and not being able to go out and see people for fear of getting sick. I think those are really the two most important things. They both allowed us to come back to the ice in the summer refreshed and excited to skate again.”

Even with the extended period of time away from the sport, the Canadians were not really sure if they wanted to continue competing. They decided to take some baby steps back onto the ice and see how they felt about it.

“Paul and I sat down a couple days before the start of our summer training,” Gilles recalled. “At that point, it was late June and we hadn’t even talked to the coaches. We literally were M.I.A. for weeks. We didn’t really want to lock ourselves in because we didn’t know even the first week of just skating and feeling the ice again, whether or not that was something that we wanted to do. It really wasn’t until probably the first or second week of July was when we said, ‘Okay, let’s give this a try.’ We didn’t have much time so luckily, we had this programme, Evita, as a backup. We had visited it a few years ago and kind of had a base of the music concept. Coming up with the short dance was a little bit more difficult, but we really didn’t put too much pressure on ourselves to make it happen. I think that’s what didn’t work out for us in the Olympics. I think we forced ourselves into things and we didn’t just let things skate as normal and come together as organic as we’re used to. This year, we just let the programmes come to us. I think that’s really what made these programmes special is that they’re truly a piece of us and our coaches and they’re two bodies of work that we really enjoy doing.”

Their free dance uses music from the Evita film soundtrack which focuses on the life and death of Eva Peron, first lady of Argentina. With such a singular strong character at the centre of the story, Gilles and Poirier searched for a way to incorporate a defined role for each of them within the dance.

“Of course, we’re two people skating and so there needs to be a relationship,” Poirier said. “The way we decided to approach it was that I was going to embody the character of Che. Che is an interesting character in the movie because he’s kind of everyone and no one. He’s not really a proper person who does anything, but, in a way, he acts as the voice of the people. Because of that, he also in a way acts as Evita’s conscience, reminding her of where she came from and who she said she was going to serve and help.”

While the free dance came together quickly, creating the rhythm dance proved to be a little trickier for Gilles and Poirier this season.

“This is actually a programme that took us a little bit longer to choreograph than we initially anticipated,” Gilles said. “We just could not find a piece of music that really stuck with us. I think we threw a whole bunch of different options of doing J-Lo or something because we knew we wanted to go a more sophisticated route, have a little bit more of a sexier approach or more modern approach than we’re used to.

“One day Carol (Lane) came in and sometimes Carol comes in with crazy ideas, but she said, ‘I found something.’ We kind of huddled in a little corridor and played the music. The moment she played it we both looked at each other and said, ‘Yes.’ If we were going to come back this year, this music is a statement. We’re reintroducing ourselves. We’re reintroducing our love for this sport. I think everything in this piece really represented what we wanted to produce this year, and it’s been checking all the marks and I think that’s why it’s been so much fun for us to do on the ice.”

Their win at the Grand Prix Final installed Gilles and Poirier as one of the favourites to take the World title in Saitama. While they recognise the possibility, they have not let themselves imagine what reaching the pinnacle of their sport would mean to them.

“We continuously want to continue to create moments and improve and that’s really what we’re all about doing,” Poirier said. “I really haven’t thought that far ahead of what that would feel like. Through our whole careers we’ve had so many victories and so many losses as well. You take all those things with you and they matter. But they don’t matter in a sense. You finish your event, whether you skated horribly or you skated well, or whether you got the result you wanted or not, you wake up the next morning and you’re the person that you are, and then you go back to skate more because that’s what you like to do.”

“I don’t think we ever really had a goal for Worlds and I think it still stands that way,” Gilles said. “There is no goal for medals or scores. It’s just how we feel when we skate, how we feel when we get off the ice. Our goal is really being able to create that moment. We are just taking the pressure off ourselves this year. I think our goal is to have fun, and enjoy the moment, enjoy each memory.”

Although Gilles and Poirier have only competed in Japan on a handful of occasions, they are excited to be back in the country once more.

“We’ve done NHK once, and then just the two World Championships in Saitama,” Poirier said. “For us, there’s always a big gap, so it’s always really exciting to go back. We know there are so many fans in Japan who support us all the time continuously through the years, whether we’re there or not. It’s nice to know that we’ll be able to perform for them live.”

“At our first Worlds in Japan in Saitama, Paul and I almost missed the short dance,” Gilles said. “The traffic was so bad. We were one of the only teams that decided to go back (to the official hotel) between our practice and our competition. I just remember being on that bus and Juris (Razgulajevs) saying, ‘Start warming up. Let’s see if we make it.’ We just ran in, did a quick warm up for 15 minutes, put our skates on and went. It was fun. It was fine. Everything was good. You’re prepared at that point.”

“I just always think how great the crowd is, how much they love skating, how much you feel that,” Poirier added. “I think we’re looking forward to making even more memories in the Super Arena.”

Even after almost a dozen years of their partnership, it is apparent that Gilles and Poirier have a strong bond and respect for each other as skaters and people when asked about their relationship as a team.

“I would say my favourite thing is our commitment to going through everything together, whether it’s easy or hard,” Poirier said.

“I would say probably one of my favourite things is the amount of love that goes into each practice each day that Paul brings,” Gilles said. “Some people love to perform, and some people love to practice and Paul loves to practice and his commitment has taught me so much throughout the years.”

With a home Worlds in Montreal looming next year and beyond that the 2026 Milano-Cortina Olympics on the horizon, the temptation is there to stay in the competitive circuit for a few more seasons, especially since the Canadians are now contending for titles. However, Gilles and Poirier are not committing to anything beyond this season as of yet.

“I think this has been the question everybody’s asked us all year,” Gilles said. “We’re just taking each competition by competition, moment by moment, practice to practice. We just don’t know how we’re going to feel. Our whole lives have been the next year, the next year and the next Olympics. I think it’s kind of nice to just live in the moment and see how we feel, see how the season goes. This is the first year back into a new quad and who knows? This is just a moment in time. We’re just figuring out and we’ll see.”

“We’re really approaching things season by season,” Poirier concurred. “The choice won’t be made based on age, but it will really just be based on how we’re feeling about what we’re doing and what’s motivating us and what’s inspiring us and that’s not the kind of thing you can plan for. You can’t really plan for inspiration. It just comes to you. At the end of this season how are we feeling? What do we want to do? What’s interesting to us? What inspires us and what’s calling our attention and what do we want to devote ourselves to? We’ll see.”

A version of this interview in Japanese appeared in the February 2023 edition of Figure Skate Life magazine.


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