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Gilles returns to Canadian figure skating championship after cancer scare

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

The 2024 Canadian figure skating championship will feel like a return to normal for ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier.

The two-time world championship bronze medallists didn't compete in last year's nationals because Gilles underwent surgery for ovarian cancer.

"Missing it last year was, I think, pretty difficult for us," Gilles said Thursday.

The 2022 Canadian championship was held without spectators in Ottawa and the 2021 event in Vancouver was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So Calgary's competition Jan. 8-14 at WinSport Arena feels like a homecoming of sorts for Gilles and Poirier.

"This will be our first, what I'll call, normal nationals in four years with missing last year, and then Olympic qualifiers kind of being closed and the year prior to them being cancelled," Poirier said.

"It really is such a special event every year. You spend the majority of your career coming up the ranks with nationals being the pinnacle of what you do every year. Even now that you know we'll have more left to the season afterwards, it still holds that magic somehow."

Gilles took medical leave midway through the 2022-23 season for what she said then was an appendectomy. She and Poirier withdrew from both the Four Continents and the Canadian championships.

Gilles revealed in May after the duo's bronze medal at the world championship that her left ovary had been removed along with her appendix.

"I'm feeling so much better than last year," the 31-year-old said. "It's been a journey to finally feel like I'm back where I'm supposed to be.

"Everything has kind of returned to quote-unquote normal. I'm like any other patient after any cancer scare. I just have to go back and do my normal tests every few months. I just had my appointment last week. I'm healthy, I'm good. Until someone tells me otherwise, I'm going to do what I love to do."

Toronto's Gilles and Poirier of Unionville, Ont., started this season strong by winning October's Skate Canada in Vancouver and November's Cup of China in Chongqing before a bronze medal at December's Grand Prix final in Beijing.

"In terms of results, we're right where we want to be," Poirier said. "With the last two seasons, we've had a little bit of a later start to choreography and a little bit of a later start to the season, but we felt really prepared for the Grand Prix. Competing also showed us the ways that we wanted to continue to let the programs evolve and grow over the course of the season as we head closer to worlds.

"We've had a lot more time now to make some adjustments, and to really zone in on places where the programs can develop more in terms of the artistry and the technical skills. We've just been so excited to be able to train consistently and normally over the past few weeks, unlike last year."

Poirier, 32, and Gilles claimed world championship bronze in 2021 in Stockholm and another last year in Saitama, Japan. They finished seventh in the 2022 Beijing Olympics and fifth at that year's world championship.

This year's nationals offers the duo another chance to hone their programs in front of a Canadian audience ahead of the Four Continents from Jan. 30 to Feb. 4 in Shanghai and the world championship March 18-24 in Montreal.

"We always just liked Canadians as a stepping stone for that championship half of the season," Gilles said. "We can see if we're going in the right direction and we still have time to make adjustments going into Four Continents and worlds after this."

Over 300 skaters are expected to compete across junior and senior levels in men's and women's singles, pairs, ice dance and synchronized skating at the national championship in Calgary.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2024.