Piper Gilles interned as an editorial assistant at IFS last summer. Her assignment: tell us about your journey, where you came from and how you ended up where you are today.
Hers is a story that I hope will inspire many other young skaters to never give up on their dreams, no matter what.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for skating. The way the ice makes you feel as you glide, across the smooth surface, curving edges, winding and twirling; the wind blowing in your face as you gain speed and hit that one long stroke.
My story began in December 2002, when I was 10 years old. What started out as a normal day became one that changed my life.
My coach Patti Gottwein told me she had a surprise for me. I was thinking it would be a donut, some candy or maybe hot chocolate. But what I got was my first dance tryout with 13-year-old Tim McKernan. I don’t remember if I was nervous or excited, I just remember thinking, “Wow.”
We became a team a month later and worked as hard as two little kids could. We learned to do lifts, which was a little scary at first. We started with a simple lift, then we added a turn and then I learned to let go with one hand. Woo-hoo!
Tim and I made our debut that summer at the dance competition in Lake Placid, N.Y. I was nervous, but the moment we stepped onto the ice, I knew that this was where I wanted to be.
We then headed to the 2004 junior nationals with the hope of winning our first medal at the juvenile level. I remember thinking at the time, “Man, I’m skating with the best of the best!’
The qualifying round was the worst. The program started without a hitch, but near the end we got a little too joyous. “We’re almost done,” we said to each other. Then, right before our last lift, with mere seconds remaining — bam, we fell.
Lesson learned! Don’t get too far ahead of yourself before the program is done.
The rest of the event went super smoothly, and we placed third. Not bad for our first season.
I had been competing in both singles and ice dance since I began skating, but that schedule got the best of me the following season.
We went back to Lake Placid that summer, and after a not-so-great singles program, I rushed off to another rink, switched into my dance skates and costume and competed in compulsory dance.
After that program, I raced back to find out the results of my singles competition. I had made it into the top four. I had no idea how I did it.
The next day I did it all over again.
As a singles skater, I was either bang on or a complete head case. There was no middle ground. That day wasn’t my best skate, and I ended up in the middle of the pack. But for the free dance, I knew I would skate fearlessly, and I did. We won!
The weeks flew by, and suddenly it was time for junior nationals. Our free dance was one of those defining moments in my career. It seemed like an eternity waiting for the final results — especially when our first national title was on the line — but at the end of the day we were the 2005 intermediate ice dance champions!
Back home, my siblings and I had a gambling ring with our dad. I had previously won a dog for medaling at juvenile nationals. My intermediate title meant I got a new iPod. My dad is a man of his word, but he quickly got, with five kids in the family (including three competitive skaters at that time), that he would have to tone down the bets.
As the 2005-06 season began, Tim and I were gearing up to compete at the novice level. It was time to reinvent ourselves. I got that it wasn’t about having cute little kid programs anymore. It was time to mature.
We worked on the blues compulsory dance with our choreographer Trina Pratt, who asked me to do things that, as a 13-year-old, I was not initially comfortable with. But we incorporated some of that work into our free dance to “The Triplets of Belleville,” which turned out to be a sassy and playful number. I think it’s fair to say I learned my showmanship from Trina.
That year was a struggle for Tim and me. We did everything we could to qualify for nationals. My twin sister Alexe had qualified in singles, but I had not. My brother Todd had qualified in ice dance. I couldn’t bear the thought that they were going to nationals and I was not. Big relief when Tim and I qualified.
At nationals we drew first for the original dance. No one ever wants to go first. When we got off the ice I thought we had done well, but as the event went on we kept moving further and further back. I began to doubt myself.
We ended up seventh overall, which was the lowest we had ever been. But we’d given it our all and we had to look on the bright side. We were a young team, the new kids on the block.
MOVIN’ ON UP
In the summer of 2006, we transitioned into the junior ranks and worked hard to make a great first impression in hopes of getting a Junior Grand Prix assignment.
At our first event in Lake Placid, we skated well and were assigned to the Junior Grand Prix event in Mexico City. The altitude there is about nine thousand feet, but as we trained in Colorado Springs, which has an altitude of six thousand feet, it didn’t matter to us. We used it to our advantage.
We placed third after the compulsories but at practice the next day we decided to do one last spin. I caught an edge going into it, and my knee slammed into the ice. I was in shock. While I tried to keep a poker face, inside I was screaming, barely holding back my tears.
My knee began to swell so I went to the team doctor who injected cortisone into it. If I thought slamming my knee into the ice was painful that injection was even worse. All I could do was take Ibuprofen and ice my knee.
But, I was able to walk, so I figured if I could walk, I could skate. In the back of my head, though, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. Tim was worried, so I just continually smiled. The last thing I wanted was more people stressing. I was doing enough of that myself. We made it through to the free dance.
The venue for that competition was interesting, to say the least. The rink was in a theme park, next to a carousel with blaring music. At the most dramatic moment in our free dance, a balloon popped in the distance and I couldn’t help but laugh. We skated a clean program, ranked third and won our first international medal.
We then headed to Taipei City, Taiwan.
Before we went, we were warned not to wear red outside of the arena due to conflict. Sure enough, as we left the rink after a practice session, a massive mob was parading down the street, protesting and smashing windows. We took refuge in our hotel. The next day we planned to stop at Starbucks, which was on our route to the rink, but it was no longer open. It had been destroyed in the protest the night before.
Then an earthquake that hit 6.8 on the Richter scale shook the city.
The event itself was totally ridiculous. A roller-skating pairs team that had never danced before received a record-high combined total.
But it was at that event that I first met my future ice dance partner, Paul Poirier.
You never know what’s going to happen at any competition.
At nationals that season, Tim and I were in the running for a spot for Junior Worlds. We missed the podium by two-tenths of a point. After missing the Junior World team again in 2008, Tim and I both realized that we were physically outgrowing each other.
I was restless and wanted to explore other options. I had a tryout with someone who had less experience but lots of potential. It felt great.
But Tim was like a brother to me. I was torn between my skating with my best friend and making a decision about what was best for my career. The next day I had to tell Tim that I would be continuing with a new partner.
I have the utmost respect and appreciation for Tim, and I cherish all the fond memories that we had together. I couldn’t have asked for a better teammate and friend.
Things moved quickly. A week later I began skating with my new partner, Zachary Donohue. We had barely two months to prepare for the Lake Placid competition.
Because I’d competed internationally before, we were being considered for an international assignment. All we had to do was compete as well as we were practicing. And we did. We won that event and made a huge splash.
We were off to our first Junior Grand Prix event in the Czech Republic. Tim and his new partner had also qualified for the competition. At first I was really excited that they had gotten an international assignment — before it hit me that I had to compete against him. That made me a little nervous. But I managed to support him and focus on my own skating.
Zach and I won the event. It was a memorable moment. In addition to winning gold, I also racked up my first costume malfunction and my first anti-doping test. Once you’ve been doped, it means you’ve made it to the big leagues.
Next up was South Africa, probably my most favorite place I’ve ever visited. We placed second and qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final in South Korea.
But a few weeks prior to the Final I injured myself in practice. I continued trying to skate. That only made things worse. It was a tough call, but we had to withdraw.
School was the only thing left on my schedule, so I got involved in extracurricular activities that kept me distracted. I was counting down the days until I was able to skate.
When that special day arrived and I was able to get back on the ice, I was told to ease myself back into it. I was not cool with that. I have one button: Go.
Zach and I went to nationals with only two weeks of preparation. We had a small slip at the beginning of the compulsory and placed third. We were frustrated, which always creates a bit of tension.
The original dance was the hardest on my leg, so that had the least amount of run-throughs. My stress level was at an all-time high. We tripped at the beginning of our program and while it wasn’t counted as a fall, it threw off our timing for the rest of the routine. We placed fifth in the segment and third overall.
We were excited to get our first national medal, but we were disappointed to be alternates for Junior Worlds. For me it was even worse. I think I set a world record for being a three-time Junior Worlds alternate.
Zach and I started pointing out each other’s flaws. It wasn’t pretty.
The next season everything changed. Zach and I were not getting along, and we began to question our partnership. We decided to relocate to Detroit, hoping a change of venue would fix what was wrong between us.
We qualified for the 2010 Junior World Championships. The day of the compulsories, my computer, passport and iPod were stolen from my hotel room. On top of that, teams that we had outperformed the past two years placed ahead of us. We ended up in ninth place. It was so difficult to handle.
Zach and I went our separate ways. I was sad, thinking that I was done skating because at the time there was no one else for me to partner with. I decided to remain in Detroit and started coaching.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Out of the blue, I received an offer to go to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, which excited me. I began working with a notable Hollywood acting coach who had an A-list clientele. It was difficult at first, going to acting classes, but auditioning for roles felt the same as having butterflies when competing. I liked doing monologues in front of casting directors, audiences and crews. I was able to portray different characters, just as I had done in skating.
Then I was offered the lead role in a new Disney on Ice production.
But just before I signed the contract in 2011, the ice dance world was shaken by three major breakups. That unexpected news made me hesitate, given the partners that were now suddenly available.
After more than a year of being away from the ice, I was excited about the prospective possibilities. I had a tryout with one person that went well. But a few days later, Paul Poirier contacted me and asked for a tryout. It was an offer I could not refuse. I packed up all my stuff, drove it home to Colorado and flew to Toronto.
Within the first five minutes that Paul and I skated together, it just felt right. I can’t describe what “right” means, but I just knew that we were well matched and we were compatible. Right then, I knew that I was exactly where I had always wanted to be.
That was the start of a new and exciting chapter in my life. In just a couple of weeks, one of my wildest dreams will come true when Paul and I compete at the World Championships in my adoptive homeland of Canada.
Looking back, I realize that everything that happened led me to where I am today. You just never know what life has in store for you.
Originally published in April 2013