They spent the post-Olympic season accepting endless compliments for a free dance that captivated many in the figure skating world. But as much as Canada’s Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier are thankful for the acclaim, it is simply not enough for them anymore.
While they continue to push the bounds of their skating in different directions, their current campaign is about something equally important — pushing themselves closer to being among the very best in the world.
Perhaps the most telling sign that Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier’s attitude has changed is not the regular appearances they have made on the podium — but rather, the disappointment they express with the color of some of the medals they won this past season.
Gilles and Poirier claimed bronze at both their Grand Prix events in Canada and France, but did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Vancouver. Not making the cut was a disappointment for the team.
On the flight home from their second Grand Prix in France, their coaches — Carol Lane and Juris Razgulajevs — decided that rather than spending the week of the Grand Prix Final being miserable, Gilles and Poirier should instead compete at Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia. They wound up mining gold at the senior B event, their second of the season. (The duo scored their first victory at Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in late September).
It proved to be the perfect antidote for them. “The Final was always in our plans and when that opportunity didn’t come our way, we decided to put our programs out there on the world stage and get feedback from different judges,” said Gilles, 27.
“The two of us have dealt with dis- appointing seasons before and things just not going our way. So we have enough experience to not just sit back and wallow in the disappointment. We’ve really been able to capitalize on those moments of disappointment and turn them into something that fuels our energy. And it makes us take a step back and look at our programs differently than we would if everything was going great.”
“As much as it was disappointing at the time, being able to go to Zagreb gave us positive energy,” added Poirier, 27. “We got very good scores there and some really positive feedback — and it was nice to be able to compete again.”
In January, Gilles and Poirier headed to the Canadian Championships. They had stood on the national podium five times previously — but never on the top step. They arrived in Saint John, New Brunswick, with nothing but golden thoughts in their heads. This year, they believed, was their time to claim the national crown. It was a view they expressed openly whenever they were asked about their goals for the competition.
“When we went to Canadians this year, we made sure we were as fit as we could be. We felt like our programs were exactly where they needed to be, and they were trained and powerful,” said Gilles. “And we’re just tired of being second. This entire season has been us thinking ‘no, we’re Canada’s No. 1 team.’”
Though they won the free dance, Gilles and Poirier found themselves second in the final standings behind Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje by an agonizing 1.47 points. It was their fifth runner-up finish at nationals. This one hurt a little more because they were convinced they had done enough to win their first Canadian title.“ We won the event in our hearts,” Gilles said at the time.
But upon further reflection in the days and weeks after nationals, Gilles and Poirier knew improvements had to be made in their rhythm dance — “that’s what really cost us the title” — and channeled their energy in that direction, rather than letting the sting of not winning in Saint John linger in their minds.
“It’s hard to sit here and be bitter and say, ‘we didn’t win Canadians — that just ruined our season,’” said Gilles. “We’re competitors and we need to make sure we’re better than everyone … we can’t be stuck in the ‘oh, we should have won this.’ We need to strive to win everything and beat everyone. I’m not saying that in a malicious way — that’s just the mindset we have to start to believe in, and it starts with making sure the programs are where they need to be.”
Both believe the disappointment at nationals provided the impetus to make the necessary changes to their rhythm dance in particular — and it paid dividends with a bronze-medal finish at Four Continents in February in Anaheim, California.
Initially, it appeared Gilles and Poirier were headed for a fourth-place finish in Anaheim. They sat in third, with Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue — who had won the Grand Prix Final in December — still to skate. But stunningly, the American team made a costly error on a stationary lift, and Gilles and Poirier held on to their podium position by a mere 0.79 of a point.
“Both of us actually thought, ‘Aw, man, we just missed it.’ We really didn’t expect Maddie and Zach to have such a crazy mistake … they lost a complete lift,” Gilles explained. “Honestly, we were expecting to be fourth. We were already in that frustrated mindset … ‘OK, what do we need to do? What do we need to do with the rhythm dance to make things better?’
We ended up on the podium because someone else made a mistake. You never want one of your competitors to make a mistake like that, but it was a nice surprise to be on the podium.”
Poirier agreed. “Being able to make that jump onto the podium was possible because we really had addressed the rhythm dance between nationals and Four Continents, and we were in much closer striking distance than we had been earlier in the season in the Grand Prixs. So I think that sort of confirmed to us that we had prepared for the competition in the right way, and it also showed us what we still needed to do before Worlds. For us, it was a really successful event.
“We’re getting closer and closer to where we want to be,” added Poirier, reflecting on a season that, prior to the World Champion- ships, had produced medals in all six events they contested. “The gap between us and the top teams is much smaller now, and we’re consistently scoring in the nines in our program components. Those are the kinds of things we’re really excited about, so it’s really just a matter now of being ready and striking at the right time, and capitalizing on a lot of positive momentum from the entire season.”
For many who have watched their evolution, this season will not just be remembered for the results and the medals. Rather, it will be recalled for the emotional free dance“ Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”that captivated fans around the world since its debut at Nebelhorn Trophy. It is the result of a special collaboration between Gilles, Poirier and Govardo, the British- American street busking duo of Jack Rose and Dominik Sky. And it was a match made in the most 21st century of ways.
Carol Lane first discovered the music — originally written and recorded by American singer Don McLean as an ode to famed Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh — in a random Facebook post. She suggested Gilles and Poirier reach out to Govardo, and they touched base with them via Instagram. It was the beginning of a relationship that has since grown into a friendship, with the skaters and the musicians having communicated regularly throughout the season.
“They came to Oberstdorf for our first performance of it and still, after every competition, we get texts from them — ‘Guys, we just watched your program, it was absolutely beautiful,’” said Gilles. “They know our competition schedule, and they’re quick on telling us ‘good luck’ and asking us how we’re feeling. We really enjoy having this personal relationship with them. It makes us want to skate this program, not just for ourselves and the audience, but also for them because they’ve done such a beautiful job with this piece of music. Having that personal relationship with someone almost makes things more special and intimate.
“We’re very, very lucky to have these new friends in our life that are so incredibly talented. They’ve been an absolute blast to work with.”
Though Gilles and Poirier knew they had something special on their hands as they crafted the program with their coaches, there was still the matter of how it would be received by audiences and the judges. “We felt like it was a special program, just because of the process of creation we had with it,” said Poirier. “Every year, every skater tries to create the best program to connect with people, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t know at the start of the season which way it’s going to go.”
As it turned out, there was little need to worry. Television commentators have used the word “masterpiece” to describe their free dance, and it has produced huge ovations — and sometimes tears — from audiences. Gilles thinks she knows exactly why. “We find that this program brings a different energy every time we compete it. That’s why so many people can connect with it. It can touch people in so many different emotional ways. Every time we perform it, we’re drawing a new feeling from it.
“Even in practice, on a day when we are tired and miserable, somehow we can still do this beautiful program — we just let the raw emotion flow into the program. When we have a really happy day, there are so many more bursts of energy. That’s why this program is so special and why people connect with it so much — there’s so much raw energy coming from it.”
Is it their favorite program ever? Gilles and Poirier will not go quite that far, suggesting instead that it is the right one for this moment in time. “If we had done this program any sooner than this, I don’t think it would have felt the same way,” said Poirier.
Gilles recalled two other programs that also seemed to find just the right spot in their journey together — going all the way back to their first season as a team in 2011-2012. “Our first, ‘Dreams and Imaginations,’ showcased ‘this is a brand new and exciting team with a lot of potential in the future.’ For us to do something that was kooky … it was perfect for us. It was our first year and it made a statement. That’s also one of my favorites because it was the start of something new.
“And with ‘Psycho’ (2013-2014), that was a very, very, tough season. It was our first Olympic year together, our first Olympic trials and we had a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. It was a crazy year, and it worked with that crazy program. That’s the way it goes — at certain times in your life, you need a certain something, and that program just happened to be that ‘something.’”
“A certain something” might also describe the secret to the team’s success. They have been together for eight seasons now, yet when asked to describe the relationship between them, both struggled to find the right words. Poirier simply said, “I wouldn’t put a label on it,” while Gilles chose to describe it another way.
“We’re skating partners and there is a general respect between us, but we also have a personal relationship. It’s like a co-worker you’ve had for 20 years — you know a lot about and work well with each other and you both want the same result.”
Theirs is a success story that Poirier said they envisioned quite quickly when they first discussed the possibility of a partnership in 2011. Both had split with former partners and Gilles’ former coach, Patti Gottwein, eventually connected with Poirier to see if he had an interest in partnering with the American-born Gilles. “Within the first five minutes, we both realized it was something we would like to proceed with,” Gilles recalled.
They also saw something that had the potential to grow into long-term success. “I don’t think we would have pursued the partnership if we didn’t feel that right from the beginning,” said Poirier. “We have the same approach to skating, we were a good match physically, and it was just a matter of can we continue to have grit, continue to work and push through obstacles. We’ve both proven to each other that we’ve been able to do that, and that’s why we’ve been successful. We didn’t stop or give up at any time when things got tough.
“No one from the get-go is the perfect partner. You grow into that, build that together. Being right for each other is a process, it’s not something that you have or you don’t have.”
It is a partnership that has also enabled both skaters to, as The Rolling Stones once noted, “get what you need.” Or, as Gilles said, “it’s like a marriage or a relationship. The other person is giving you what you need. “If I’m talking about myself, I need structure. I need plans. I need that kind of stuff so that it keeps me in line and it keeps me on track. I’m also very creative and I like to try new things, but it comes to a point where you actually need to start nailing things down and train. But for Paul — and maybe I’m putting words in his mouth — it’s probably nice to have a lightness or a different energy and a chance for him to think outside of his head and let his body go.
“You never know who’s going to bring different things to your life. For myself, he is exactly what I need as an athlete … And it’s nice to be able to come to the rink and have someone who has the same respect as you, loves to train, loves to perform and just loves to skate.”
Away from the ice, though, each skater writes a different story. Gilles is one of skating’s true fashionistas, both in the unique style she displays away from the ice and in her love of designing costumes. She is also into music and movies — “some of that stuff comes back to skating, in what you’re exposed to and just being social” — and is a huge sports fan. Among her favorite teams are hockey’s Chicago Blackhawks, baseball’s Chicago Cubs and football’s Denver Broncos. Originally from Rockford, Illinois, her family moved to Colorado Springs many years ago.
“I’m kind of all over the place,” Gilles said with a laugh in explaining her varied interests. “I took a few courses in creative industries at Ryerson University and last fall I took a wine course at Toronto’s George Brown College. Maybe I’ll have my own wine company someday or maybe my own fashion company … I don’t know. For the most part, they’re just ideas and I’m just entering into them little by little.”
Poirier has a very different lifestyle with “a lot of reading, a lot of nerdy stuff.” He is currently completing a Master’s in linguistics at the University of Toronto, taking part-time courses at night around his skating schedule. “That’s my downtime, that’s my free time, that’s my hobby, ”he said. “It’s like a second job that I have to have. I find it a really manageable balance and it’s something I really enjoy doing.
“I’m generally curious about the world and how a lot of things work. Language is interesting in that it’s what we use to communicate with each other, and also what we use to think and organize the world around us. I like to reflect on it and make sense of it … it’s something I want to understand better.”
Gilles and Poirier headed into the 2019 World Championships with high hopes to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish. Though they placed eighth in the rhythm dance, the duo was happy with their program component scores. “The changes we made to our rhythm dance paid off,” Gilles said. “Our component scores were something we were pushing for and we received plus nines at Worlds. We struggled with levels all season, so finishing it off strong was a compliment for us.”
Poirier added: “I think we were both a little bit nervous about the rhythm dance because this was a program that was harder for us this season than the free. We focused our training the last month on really perfecting it and making it stronger. There were a few little shaky moments between the two of us — ‘tangled feet’— something that happens in the Tango. But we got the score we were looking for. With higher scores and higher components I think overall the program was a success.
Though Gilles and Poirier had performed the free dance well at a number of competitions throughout the season, the World Championships was not one of them. “For both of us it was definitely not our best free dance this season,” Gilles admitted. “Both of us were a little nervous because of the pressure to move up in the standings. I think we put that on ourselves. We’ve got three years until the Olympics and this was a stepping-stone for us.”
Poirier said he and Gilles are still trying to figure out what it will take to land on a World podium. “For all the teams that is kind of a question mark. We are well aware of our weaknesses and what we need to improve on, but at the same time sometimes it’s hard to know how to improve those things and what exactly needs to happen. “We are aiming to be on the World podium. We will have to see where we stand after this season to see how much space there is between the podium and us.”
Perhaps their biggest blessing yet was the opportunity to compete at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games where they finished eighth. The overall experience fueled their fire to do it all over again at the Winter Games in Beijing in 2022. “We were just trying to gain experience (in PyeongChang),” said Gilles. “We knew that we weren’t in medal contention going in. It was just a moment for us to embrace something we were excited about, and we performed the hell out of our two programs. Now we’re trying to figure out what it will take to be on that podium.”
Beijing, however, will be about more than just another Olympic experience. Gilles and Poirier clearly have their sights set on the podium and, fitting in with their mindset at the beginning of a new quadrennial, nothing less will do. “If we didn’t feel that way, there would be no point going to another Olympics so we could just experience it,” said Poirier. “I don’t think that’s a worthwhile pursuit. It’s not worth the effort to train and compete for four years. That’s the discussion we had after the last Olympics. If we were going to go for another one, it would be on the condition that we were going after a medal, and that we felt we had all the tools we needed to make that possible.”
Now it will be up to their creative minds to find the right vehicles to get them there. At this time, Gilles and Poirier cannot tell what direction their skating will take in the next couple of years. “Vincent” was a completely new vehicle for them, and it is almost certain there are more unique twists and turns to come on the road to the next Olympic Winter Games. It has, after all, been Gilles and Poirier’s calling card all along. Now, their fans eagerly await the future, no doubt wondering, “What will they come up with next?”
“We want to surprise ourselves and with that comes surprising other people, I guess,” said Poirier. “As we keep innovating, it’s a matter of trying to find what captures our interest that year and that moment, where we are in our careers, where we are as people, where we are as artists, and where we are as dancers. “That pulls us in different directions at different times because we evolve and we change, we grow and learn more. Our catalogue of programs sort of reflects how we’ve evolved over the years.”
Gilles and Poirier have been assigned to the Grand Prix’s in Canada and Russia this season. No decision has been made about which Challenger Series events they will contest, but it is likely they will open their season at Skate Canada Autumn Classic.