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Finally a sense of normalcy for Canadian figure skaters after COVID-plagued seasons

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier - Getty Images

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier had competed under a COVID-19 cloud for the better part of two seasons — from worrying about getting sick, to competing in front of no fans, to not being able to compete at all.

Canada's world ice dance bronze medallists said the tough couple of years played a part in their decision to come back and compete for at least one more season.

Gilles and Poirier are at Skate Canada's first real training camp in three years this week in Mississauga, and there's finally a sense of normalcy that all the skaters said they feel.

"Being at worlds (last March in France) and then doing 'Stars on Ice' for a month, that was really the first time in two years we got to skate for a crowd . . . you really do forget how good that feels," Poirier said. "So, that definitely factored into our decision.

"More than anything, the second half of last season was really hard, it was really stressful, even just the stress of trying not to catch COVID, especially during nationals and leading up to the (Olympic) Games," he added. "It took an emotional toll. We got to the end of each performance, and it was almost this weird feeling of relief versus enjoying living in that moment. It was really not the fullness of competing and performing that we're used to feeling."

Canadian figure skaters were among the hardest athletes hit by COVID-19, with most of their competitions erased over two seasons. Of the few competitions they did go, most, including the Beijing Games, were held in front of few to no fans — not ideal in a sport that's as much art as athleticism.

"More than anything, what we want to capture this season is to get to the end of every performance in competition and really feel like we lived it and enjoyed it, and to really compete on our terms again," Poirier said.

Gilles and Poirier, Keegan Messing (men's singles) and Madeline Schizas (women's singles) headline Skate Canada International, Oct. 28-30 in Mississauga.

Messing's decision to stick around for another season was also partly motivated by the pandemic. The 30-year-old, who lives in Alaska, tested positive for the virus right before his flight to the Beijing Olympics. He missed the Olympic team event, and arrived less than 24 hours before the men's short program.

"It was probably the biggest challenge I've ever had, to keep my mind positive while being in quarantine for those 10 days in Vancouver," Messing said. "I would start saying things like 'if' we make it, or 'if' we go, if this, if that, and my coach Ralph (Burghardt) said 'No, stop saying 'if.'"

Messing said he'd like a chance to compete in the World Team Trophy next spring in Tokyo before he retires. He's also keen to compete in what will be his 20th national championships. And he wants to be able to say he landed a quadruple Lutz in competition at age 30.

Messing, who loves to play to the crowd, is also glad the days of empty arenas are behind him.

"We kind of turned off that part in our mind, because what are you going to do about it? We can't do anything. So don't focus on it. We're here to do a job," Messing said. "And it kind of hit us (with the crowd at the world championships): 'Oh, this is nice, that's what we were missing. And we had a little bit more joy (competing)."

Messing's song choice for his short program this season is "Grace Kelly," by MIKA. The song went viral on social media thanks to the "Grace Kelly Challenge" on TikTok. Messing chose the song, he said, after the humorous TikTok compilation by actors Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell got stuck in his head.

"We were struggling with music choices for the short program," Messing said, of himself and choreographer Lance Vipond. "We could not find music. I sent (Grace Kelly) it to him as a joke, 'What do you think about this song?' He was like 'Actually, it's not bad . . . I think I really like it.'"

Schizas, who shone in the team event in Tokyo in her Olympic debut, was feeling rested Wednesday after a welcome off-season. Competing in her first Games followed by the world championships left her exhausted.

"I didn't expect it to be as hard as it was. Everyone told me 'Oh, you just wait,' and I'm like, 'Oh no, I'm 18, I run on coffee and adrenalin and dreams. I'm gonna be fine,'" Schizas laughed.

"And then of course, you get through being at Olympics for three weeks, and the pressure and the stress and the fun of that, and then you're home and you're like, 'Oh, you guys were right. I am tired.'"

COVID-19 erased Stephen Gogolev's chance to compete at the Olympics entirely. He tested positive upon arrival at the Olympic trials.

"It was quite disappointing, because I was quite prepared for that nationals, and I was hoping to get a spot for the Olympic Games," Gogolev said.

The 17-year-old is one of Canada's rising stars. He's been able to land all five quadruple jumps since he was just 13. But he hasn't competed at the Canadian championships since he won silver in 2019, when he was only five foot four. He's since shot up to six feet.

The ISU Grand Prix season kicks off with a sold-out Skate America, Oct. 21-23 in Norwood, Mass.

The Canadian championships are Jan. 9-15 in Oshawa, Ont., while the world championships are March 20-26 in Saitama, Japan.

Canada is still awaiting word on its potential bronze medal from the team event in Beijing. The Canadians finished fourth, but it was later revealed that Russian teen Kamila Valieva had failed a doping test.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2022.