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Canadian ice dancers Gilles, Poirier expect to be medal contenders in every event

Piper Gilles Paul Poirier Piper Gilles Paul Poirier - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were emotionally spent at the end of a Beijing Olympic season spent trying to dodge COVID-19.

"The stress of the Games really ate into our enjoyment, especially during the second half of last season," Poirier said.

The strict rules last season around a positive COVID-19 test could have kept them in isolation ahead of the Games, or even missing the Games altogether.

"The biggest challenge was trying not to catch it leading up to the Games. It was very easy to be professionally paranoid," Poirier said. "We felt especially isolated and on-edge. It really coloured our experience."

And so the world ice dance bronze medallists, who open their season at this week's Skate Canada International, took a full six weeks off in the summer to recharge instead of the normal two, and returned to the ice like blank slates.

"We both felt excited about the possibility of skating and competing again, but neither of us knew definitely how we wanted to approach the season," Poirier said. "What we ended up doing was simply showing up at the rink and skating because we didn't have a game plan.

"Normally by the time we get to the off-season we've already picked music, pretty much know what we plan to do. This time we went in blindly and started to see what we gravitated toward and what was inspiring to us. And so it was a much more organic start to the season."

Gilles and Poirier, who are both 30, finished a heartbreaking seventh at the Beijing Olympics. A uncharacteristic botched rotational lift left Gilles a puddle of tears while they awaited their marks. They were fifth at the world championships a month later.

They spent their respective off-seasons visiting family and travelling, things they'd missed doing during the pandemic.

The struggle of the past two seasons — competing in empty arenas and the cancellation of countless competitions — was a big reason the ice dancers decided they weren't quite done with the sport. They're unsure whether they have another Olympic quadrennial in them however.

"We're taking it one year at a time, one month at a time at this point," Gilles said. "It's so easy to look at what's ahead but forget about what we're doing right now … Who knows?"

Gilles, from Toronto, and Poirier, from Unionville, Ont., will skate their short program to "Do What I Do" and "Rhythm Only" by Lady Bri. Their free dance is to music from "Evita."

Their second ISU Grand Prix event is in Espoo, Finland next month.

Every skater and dance and pairs team is assigned two Grand Prix events, and the top six scorers in each of the four disciplines advance to the Grand Prix Final in Turin, Italy in December.

Marie-Jade Lauriault and Romain Le Gac, who won the bronze medal in the ice dance in their first international event representing Canada last week at Skate America, and Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha round out the Canadian contingent in ice dance at Mississauga's Paramount Fine Foods Centre.

Keegan Messing headlines the men's field for Skate Canada, while Conrad Orzel and Stephen Gogolev are the other two Canadians competing.

Olympians Madeline Schizas and Gabrielle Daleman are the two Canadians in the women's singles field.

Kelly Ann Laurin and Loucas Ethier, who captured bronze at Skate America last week, and Brooke McIntosh and Benjamin Mimar compete in a pairs field that saw numerous retirements last season.

Gilles said she and Poirier expect to be in medal contention in every event this season, including the world championships in Saitama, Japan in March.

"That's where we aim or else we wouldn't be continuing," she said. "I feel there are still things for us to accomplish."

But more important is enjoying the process again. The results will come.

"I think what we're really looking forward to is competing and performing with joy," Poirier said. "That's really something that we want to put at the forefront this season."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 26, 2022.