Gilles, Poirier lead Canadian contingent competing at Skate Canada International
Live coverage of Grand Prix will be streamed on CBC Sports at 4 p.m. ET Friday
It's been two years since Canada's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier stood atop the podium at Skate Canada International after winning gold.
When the second stop on the Grand Prix circuit begins this week, the 29-year-old ice dancers will enter not only as the defending champions from 2019 — the 2020 iteration was cut due to the pandemic — but also with a world championship bronze medal to their names.
"To start off the Grand Prix just feels good. I think we've put in so much work and effort in the last couple of weeks. ... I think we're starting to feel like we're in that perfect spot to be successful," Gilles said.
Skate Canada, taking place in Vancouver from Oct. 29 to 31, will also see figure skating fans fill the arena. The duo is ecstatic to feed off that energy again, though part of them is no longer used to it.
"I think the challenge at Skate Canada ... will be just to manage our energy so we don't get overexcited by the buzz in the building," Poirier said.
WATCH | Canada's Gilles, Poirier capture Autumn Classic ice dance title:
The team has been meticulous about fine-tuning their skates after cruising to first place this season at the Autumn Classic International.
As they approach the circuit and the Olympics, the pair say they've modified the "flavouring" of their programs with newer transitions and dynamic lifts. They're thrilled to share their Elton John rhythm dance and 'Long and Winding Road' free, as well as the heart behind the pieces.
"Our love for skating and performing has never faltered. I think that is the feeling we want to convey and so while 'the road' might be the story, I think what we really want to shine through is our love of our craft and what we do," Poirier said.
They'll be joined by two other Canadian teams, both of whom performed at the Autumn Classic.
Canada's Haley Sales and Nikolas Wamsteeker skated to sixth while Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha finished ahead of them in fourth place. Lajoie and Lagha also came seventh at the Finlandia Trophy.
Meanwhile, a Canadian trio is also competing in men's singles, including Keegan Messing, Roman Sadovsky and Conrad Orzel.
Messing was the only Canadian who squeaked in a skate on the Grand Prix last year. The 29-year-old performed to piped-in applause at Skate America, which he said was "like someone took all the bass out of your favourite song."
The skater said he got a taste of "what we had forgotten" with the live crowd at Finlandia in early October, where he finished fourth.
Along with the excitement of competing alongside his teammates once again, he also brings sentimentality to the ice as a new dad, with his son, Wyatt, inspiring his long program 'Home' by Phillip Phillips.n
It may be the last or penultimate season for Messing — one he says he's intending on riding through the Olympics and into world championships.
For the first time since 2018, Nathan Chen will enter after leaving a competition where he reached the podium, but didn't claim gold.
The three-time world champion will skate back-to-back events after earning bronze at Skate America. His fellow American Jason Brown, who skated to gold at Finlandia, will also get his start in the series, as will Russia's Alexander Samarin, who finished off the podium at the Grand Prix Final 2019.
Canada's Schizas to make Grand Prix debut
On the women's singles side, Canada's Madeline Schizas makes her Grand Prix debut.
The 18-year-old from Oakville, Ont, said she's been soaking in the learning experience of performing in a tough field — she skated to fifth at the Cranberry Cup and recorded a personal best in the free at Finlandia for ninth.
"The standard in ladies skating has really been raised recently," she said. "We've gone from where a mistake or two is okay, to clean [skate] being a minimum.
"I compete my best when I compete against challenging competitors."
Schizas won the virtual 2021 Skate Canada Challenge and is the 2020 national bronze medallist.
WATCH | Gilles, Poirier recount narrowly missing silver at worlds:
The Canadian says she used the pandemic to raise the technical content of her program amidst the lack of competitions.
Canada's Emily Bausback, the 2020 national champion, and Alison Schumacher, who won silver, are also in the field.
They'll take on the powerful Russian skaters Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the reigning world silver medallist, and Alena Kostornaia, who won the Grand Prix Final in 2019. Karen Chen of the United States, who finished fourth at worlds, will also compete.
Three Canadian teams also make up nearly half the competition in pairs. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are the defending silver medallists from 2019, returning after a sixth-place finish at worlds.
The Canadians opened up their competitive season with an eighth-place skate at Finlandia.
Ahead of them in fifth were new partners Eric Radford and Vanessa James.
Radford has also been contending with a knee injury since Finlandia, suffered in the free after being kicked by James on their side-by-side triple toes.
"One of our main goals is to continue the momentum and progression that we gain each day and each time we come out in competition," James said, adding that while expectations are coming from themselves and others, they hope to simply enjoy the opportunity to skate again.
"We want to skate our best and have our best result, but when we step on the ice, that's not what's in our head. And if there is a moment where we get to stand on the podium, it'll just be an added bonus," Radford said.
Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland round out the Canadian contingent, which will face steep competition including China's Sui Wenjing and Han Cong — two-time world champions, the 2018 Olympic silver medallists and 2019 Grand Prix Final gold medal winners.