Battle-hardened duo of Gilles-Poirier ready for their moment in Beijing
Ice dancers found their groove when they decided to just skate for themselves
The hardest part is letting go.
Piper Gilles had left her American home to pursue an Olympic dream with Canada, Paul Poirier had a devastating ankle injury that proved too big a setback in trying to qualify for Sochi. Together, they were able to achieve so much of what they wanted through their ice dancing routines, except the final results.
Just two months ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics, it was that empty feeling that hit them once again at their final Grand Prix of the season in Lake Placid, New York. Everyone had the nicest things to say about their performances, but couldn't quite get there in reflecting that feedback in their scores. On the car ride back to Toronto, looking at themselves, seeing all the ups and downs that brought them to this moment, it was time to let go of what everyone else thought.
"There's a point in your career where simply showing up and working hard in your career makes you better," Poirier said recently of that epiphanous moment. "Then you reach a point as an athlete where simply showing up and working hard doesn't make you better anymore. It's very easy in that process of trying to figure out 'What do we do next?' to get lost a little bit."
In the wilderness, not knowing where to go, they released their inhibitions and found the direction they needed, with perhaps a final destination of the podium at the Beijing Olympics.
WATCH l Gilles and Poirier describe patient ascent to the top:
Gilles was born in Rockford, Illinois in 1992, a city that has risen to prominence amongst Canadians with the rise to prominence of fellow Rockford native Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors. She grew up skating just like her twin sister Alexe and older brother Todd, and a move to Colorado Springs at the age of seven united her with coach Patti Gottwein, who was already training her brother.
With success at the junior level, Gilles partnered with Zach Donohue to find the next level in 2008. While there were some momentous occasions, the partnership itself was combustible.
"They were brilliant together, but they didn't get along at all," Gottwein said. "She was really in a tough stage where there were things going on at the rink that were challenging and the partnership was challenging. It was just a perfect storm for her to kind of lose her way for a little bit without anything of her own doing."
So put off by the experience, Gilles looked at other avenues of seeking joy courtesy of a move to Los Angeles at 18, before her competitive ice dancing career had barely begun. She appeared in a Simple Plan music video and was on her way to Disney on Ice for the role of Rapunzel.
All the while, Gottwein kept the faith. Having trained her since she was a little girl, Gottwein believed there was so much left for Gilles to accomplish. She quietly let those in the competitive skating world know that Gilles was available for potential opportunities.
Poirier also happened to be looking for a fresh start. Having already made an Olympics appearance at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, he was looking to take the next step in his career. He had known Gilles from junior competitions and her mother, Bonnie, had heard through the grapevines that Poirier was looking for a partner. With just two days to go before Gilles would head to Disney, she was convinced by both Gottwein and Bonnie to instead go to Canada and see if there was a fit with Poirier.
WATCH | Gilles and Poirier finish 4th in rhythm dance at Olympics:
Within a couple minutes at Scarboro Figure Skating Club, the two knew they had something special, and everyone watching, including coach Carol Lane, could see it, too. The similarities in their skating style were evident and pointed to a chemistry the pros know is rare to find.
"What makes our work so rewarding, in a way, is that you do feel a lot of the time that you are working blindly," Poirier said. "You kind of set out this path for yourself, and it's a forest with no path, and you just hope you're going to end up where you want to end up."
"At the base of all that and almost 11 years into our partnership is that commitment to give a 100 per cent of ourselves to each other," Poirier said. "That doesn't change.
Gilles moved to Canada
"Of course, we've evolved as people over time, as artists over time, our partnership has grown over time, but I think that core hasn't changed. I knew so long as that part was there that we would be successful. Whether that success turned out to be winning every medal we ever wanted to win I wasn't sure but, would it be a rich, rewarding experience? Yes."
One of the foremost challenges for the pair early on was the fact that Gilles wasn't Canadian and was going to have to uproot herself from the States and start a new life in Canada, where the looming uncertainty of how new teammates — and a new country — would accept a girl in her final teenage year was only natural.
WATCH | Behind the magic of rhythm dance routine:
Coach Lane had her finger on the pulse. She knew that Gilles was going to need support and was cognizant of the fact that Gilles not only was leaving behind her family, but an alternate career route to pursue this partnership with Poirier.
"I've always called her my Sunshine Girl because I said she brought the sunshine when she came," Lane said. "She's got such a lovely, warm personality. She stayed with a wonderful family when she came called the DeVoe family. The mom, Joanne, basically became Piper's second mother and still is."
Poirier needed some time to recognize the adjustment Gilles needed to make. He had never had to leave home and so couldn't empathize. Over time, he understood and respected that Gilles was experiencing a much different journey than his. He was mindful that while he's been fortunate enough to be home throughout his career, he was an exception and not the rule in the ice skating world. They both shared a similar sense of humour and so away from the rink would watch all sorts of YouTube videos to get a laugh.
While they could compete nationally in 2012, they were ineligible for international events since Gilles had competed for the United States in 2011. Knowing they wouldn't have international competition actually allowed them a bit more leeway in experimenting and trying out different things, something they both enjoyed. Scarboro Figure Skating Club is a fairly small club where everyone knows each other and that created the exact type of family environment softened the blow of adapting to a new country.
During the spring of 2013, Poirier suffered a right ankle fracture that threatened their hopes of going to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. Just as Gilles had felt the love and support for her, this was a chance for her to show how much Poirier meant as well.
"Piper was an absolute rock when Paul broke his leg," Lane said. "She never faltered, she never wavered."
Piper was an absolute rock when Paul broke his leg. She never faltered, she never wavered.- Carol Lane, Piper and Poirier's coach
Once mobile enough, Poirier would come to the skating club rink on crutches. There was a program that they had just begun to work on when he broke his leg, and so he would watch Gilles practice it with coach and choreographer Juris Razgulajevs. Once Gilles was done on the ice, she would meet Poirier in the hallway where he would sit on a chair and Gilles would dance the program around him. Poirier has an eidetic memory and so once seen, never forgotten.
By the end of 2013, Poirier and their support staff were attending Gilles' citizenship ceremony.
"Everybody was so welcoming and they were just as excited as I was to be able to represent this country," Gilles said. "The longer I've been here, the more proud I get. I feel this love and support and it's so hard to really describe. I think I was destined to be a Canadian because I loved maple syrup. One of my favourite moments is getting maple syrup from my physio at the ceremony."
A new vision
And now they found themselves on that car ride back from Lake Placid, and wondering why they couldn't get over the hump.
They realized they were getting lost in the noise of trying to do 5,000 different things at the same time. They found themselves losing their identity and their essence. Different voices were tugging them in different directions and in a judged sport like ice dancing the results themselves can be subjective, so how do you properly evaluate?
It was then they decided to let all that go and skate for themselves.
Gilles and Poirier take 3rd in free dance in Beijing:
"Ice dancing is such a subjective discipline, even more so than all the other skating disciplines," Lane said. "I think they went through a period of being very outcome oriented and then they stopped doing that. When they stopped doing that and just started to think about being themselves, it became instead focused on producing the work the way that they wanted it to be."
Poirier is a thorough competitor, a deep thinker who obsesses over every little detail that can be improved. The answer, though, came while scrolling through his social media and discovering artistic consultant and choreographer Jeff Dimitriou, who prides himself on the emotional and spiritual aspects of dancing as performance art.
After starting out with some studio dance work, Dimitriou found that there was plenty to like about what Gilles and Poirier had in their routine, but it just didn't make people feel what they needed to. Their song choice was obscure: the old Perry Mason TV show theme song Park Avenue Beat. He also saw room for growth in their ability to connect emotion with their movements.
The process of doing that began with divorcing from the idea that the scoreboard determined their success. Reminding themselves that there was a time when they were happy to be inventive, that year when they were ineligible for international competition for example, and that even if things didn't go their way in terms of the podium, they could still be incredibly proud of what they had done.
"That's what makes art," Dimitriou said. "Art is what lies in between the elements and between the dazzle. It's how every movement is connected to an intention."
With about six weeks to go before nationals that also serve as Olympic trials, Poirier and Gilles knew they couldn't start all the way from scratch. What they had taken away from this little stretch of self-evaluation was the value of presentation in a way that not just tickled viewers momentarily, but captured their imagination in a way that created a memory. They knew they could make their music more recognizable and opted for James Bond. Parts of the routine had to be changed to suit the music but the structure was very much the same.
By the second week of January, they were ready to test it out in a high leverage situation and finished second to Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the national championships in Vancouver.
They then rode that momentum into PyeongChang, finishing eighth there before a sixth-place finish in Milan at the world championships, a career-best result at the event.
"I think it's actually such a proud moment," Gilles said. "I feel like if I were to ever look back at our career, I think that is such a boost of confidence to say we can handle anything after that. If you knew what was going on in our brains weeks before, it's just laughable."
As Gilles and Poirier transitioned from spins to their big lift to twizzles en route to their second consecutive gold medal in the ice dance competition at the recent Canadian national championship in Ottawa, it's the Beatles' The Long and Winding Road that served as their source of inspiration.
The path of this pair that has now worked together for over 11 years has certainly been circuitous, but all the hardships along the way have only served to strengthen their bond. From injuries derailing hopes of an appearance at Sochi to coping with a parent's severe illness heading into PyeongChang, there is some irony in the fact that an Olympics with the backdrop of a global pandemic serves as the setting of their greatest clarity in both mind and body.
"We made it our mission during this quad leading up to the Beijing Games to make sure every choice we were making was going to bring us closer to that goal of winning a medal at the Games," Poirier said.
There's nothing to sneeze at when it comes to where Gilles and Poirier stand now as national champions heading into Beijing. They are battle-hardened and ready, enjoying every moment because they've found what matters most to them and are happy to drown out the noise in pursuit of that happiness.
A special legacy has been established, one that will even be commemorated for some time to come. In a couple of years, Poirier and Gilles will have one of the partial patterns — called The Maple Leaf — that they did in one of their programs become a compulsory dance in International Skating Union competitions, a rare acknowledgment among skaters.
"We've stayed true to ourselves throughout this whole journey," Gilles said. "We've accomplished the things that we wanted to accomplish. We tested ourselves so much at the beginning and explored dance, explored art in skating, I think we just kept an open mind our whole career and what we could do to differentiate ourselves from other teams."