Photo: Robert Foreman

Ryerson alumna Piper Gilles on her way to first Winter Olympics

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By Vartan Bzdikian

After missing out on the Sochi Olympics in 2014, former Ryerson creative industries student Piper Gilles has qualified to compete for Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Gilles, 26, and her ice dance partner Paul Poirier secured their spot in Pyeongchang by finishing second at the 2018 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships earlier this month.

“Pure joy, it’s a breath of fresh air because we’ve worked our entire lives for that Olympic moment, qualifying for the games has always been my dream,” said Gilles, a six-time medallist at the national championships and a first-time Olympian.

Gilles and Poirier have skated together since 2011, and they’ve dreamed of this moment ever since they put their first pair of skates on. They have been on a long and challenging seven-year journey to be where they are now, Gilles said.

It’ll be Gilles’ first Olympic participation, but she has come close before.

For Gilles, who was born in Illinois, the first step to compete in the Olympics was to receive a Canadian citizenship, which she did in December 2013.

Sochi was on the horizon, but with Poirier recovering from a broken right ankle, Gilles says the duo just wasn’t physically ready to perform. Not qualifying for Sochi was heartbreaking for both Gilles and Poirier, but four years later, they’re on the cusp of finally achieving Olympic success.

“Four years ago, we were good. We went from not qualifying for the Olympics to [being] sixth in the world in the 2014-15 season—we jumped 12 places. Since we did not go to the games, we had a chance to go home and work our butts off,” said Gilles, who says missing out on the Games was the hardest rejection of her life.

Since then, Poirier and Gilles have developed a near palpable chemistry on the ice. Their innovation, unpredictability and elegance never fail to keep spectators on the edge of their seats.

“We want to be on the podium there,” Poirier told The Eyeopener in 2014. “We are our own brand. We are Piper and Paul. We are never going to do what people expect us to do,” Gilles said proudly.

Poirier claims that they built this chemistry over time, but the other piece of the puzzle is that, “you have to have a clear sense of what you are trying to portray while performing, having a clear sense of what your character is and what the relationship is between the two characters.”

At the 2018 Canadian Skating Championship, all of their hard work was rewarded, and that chemistry was on full display. This was the performance they had been working for all these years. It was the performance that would send them to Pyeongchang.

Instead of playing it safe with a familiar Perry Mason-themed program, which was what they had been performing all year round, they completely scrapped it and surprised everyone with a James Bond-themed routine—dazzling the crowd, and evidently, the judges. The risk was clearly worth it.

For the next three weeks, it’ll be nothing but training for the duo. Their minds are focused on perfection and on further improvement before they depart.

“We want a medal, which is a very difficult goal, but we are here to compete,” Poirier said. “We are pushing ourselves to be one of the best in the world. The experience is going to be wonderful either way, but that must be our aim if we want to achieve anything significant.”

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