Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier had planned to skate their way to the world championship medal podium this time last year in Montreal.
Their enchanting free dance to “Both Sides Now” by iconic Canadian Joni Mitchell was carefully selected with the Montreal skating fans in mind.
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But those world championships never happened, erased by COVID-19.
Gilles and Poirier finally climbed the podium Saturday, winning bronze at the world championships in their first live competition in more than a year. With the global pandemic prohibiting fans in Eriksson Globe Arena, their Canadian teammates made up their cheering section.
“It was weird. It felt just as intimate as an arena that was filled with people,” said Gilles, who could be heard choking back a sob when their scores were announced in the all-but-empty arena. “It felt like it was performing for the judges, and just ourselves, which was actually really nice. Kind of special. We weren’t trying to prove anything, we were just being who we were and enjoying the moment and skating as one.
“It’ll be a very special memory to be able to know we were able to perform without the audience and still have that same energy throughout.”
Because of social distancing, Gilles and Poirier stood alone on the podium during medal presentations, and had to present each other with their medals.
WATCH | Gilles, Poirier reach ice dance podium for 1st time at worlds:
Canadian men’s singles skater Keegan Messing, who finished sixth in his event earlier in the day, stood in the upper bowl of the rink waving a massive Canadian flag.
Toronto’s Gilles and Poirier, from Unionville, Ont., scored a personal-best 214.35 to earn their first medal in eight trips to the world championships.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Poirier said. “It’s been a very long time for us, we were kind of stuck between sixth and eighth [place] for a very long time, essentially since 2014, so I think just the pent-up frustration of so many years, being able to accomplish this just feels like such a nice relief.”
Health and safety protocols forced the cancellation of every major Canadian competition this season, plus limited any travel abroad to events. But the world championships are an important Olympic qualifier, and so the Canadians didn’t hesitate to travel to Stockholm to compete.
‘Thriving off uncertainty’
“I think we’re absolutely thrilled with what we did today, having a crazy season,” said Gilles. “I’m so proud that we pushed through and we didn’t let the uncertainty of everything get in the way. I think we’ve been thriving off of the uncertainty of everything because we know the ability that we have and we just love to perform and skate and I think that came out on the ice today.”
Ice dance capped the competition, but there was no celebratory team dinner. Gilles joked the Canadians had been holding “hallway gatherings” at their hotel.
“It’s just a nice be an event with all our teammates again, I think we really missed seeing them throughout the year,” Gilles said.
They were permitted just one coach in Stockholm, so Juris Razgulajevs made the trip. Following their required 14-day quarantine upon return to Canada, they hope to celebrate with coaches Carol Lane and Jon Lane, who were forced to watch from home.
Russia’s Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov took the ice dance gold.
WATCH | Sinitsina, Katsalapov of Russia capture ice dance gold:
American Nathan Chen, meanwhile, laid down a performance Saturday that lifted him into the company of history’s best worldwide.
In becoming the first American since Scott Hamilton to win a third consecutive World Figure Skating Championships men’s title, the 21-year-old Chen also outskated two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. And Chen believes he has been — and can be — even better.
“I wouldn’t say this is my best free program ever,” he said. “But it’s one I will definitely remember forever and cherish, being able to skate like that and skate this piece here at worlds.”
WATCH | Nathan Chen wins 3rd straight title:
Messing’s sixth-place finish guaranteed Canada will have two men’s spots in the Beijing Olympics. He hopes they go to himself and good friend Nam Nguyen, who Messing credited with helping him get through these roller-coaster last 12 months.
While he waited for his scores, Messing said to the TV camera: “I just want to say thank you Nam, you were there the whole ride through this program. We did it together. We did it. I love you buddy.”
WATCH | Messing places personal-best 6th at worlds:
Chen was dynamic in easily surpassing short program winner Hanyu and stamp himself as the man to beat at next year’s Beijing Olympics. Hanyu struggled mightily Saturday and fell to third place behind 17-year-old countryman Yuma Kagiyama, who took silver in his first senior worlds.
“The fact I’m able to be here at this world championships after this unprecedented year, it’s amazing. I’m elated right now,” Chen said. “I just tried to really remind myself to enjoy being here. I don’t know how many more world championships I’ll get to be at. Doing that, I was able to be a lot more calm.”
No one has had the jumping mastery of Chen. His “Quad King” reputation is well founded, and he landed his five four-rotation jumps with what NBC analyst Johnny Weir dubbed “technical wizardry.”
Hanyu struggles mightily
Chen had to await Hanyu’s performance, which was, for the Japanese star, rather pedestrian. He opened up on two jumps, had sloppy landings on others, and seemed to know it was not nearly enough when he shook his head before taking a bow and leaving the ice.
Hanyu, whose artistry is unmatched among today’s men, might not have been at his best physically.
WATCH | That Figure Skating Show recaps the men’s free program:
“Coming into this competition I have been working a lot on my quad axel and so I have overworked my body,” he said. “So it is important to get my body well. I want to go back to practising it again. I want to be the very first person to land it cleanly in an official competition.”
That won’t happen for a while with the major events of a truncated season concluded. It’s possible Chen and Hanyu won’t face off again until December’s Grand Prix Final — or perhaps even until the Olympics.
Hamilton won four successive worlds from 1981-84. Since then, three others (Canada’s Kurt Browning and Patrick Chan and Russia’s Alexei Yagudin) have gotten three in a row.
Chen has not lost a competition since the 2018 Olympics, when perhaps the worst short program of his career doomed him. He rallied with a spectacular free skate to climb from 17th place to fifth.
He’s been unmatched since, winning at worlds, nationals, Skate Americas and Grand Prix Finals. And the quads keep on coming, though he chuckled when Hanyu mentioned a 4 1-2 rotation quad axel.
“I am looking forward to next season and what everyone else brings to the table,” Chen said, “and challenging myself to be as good as I can be.”
WATCH | That Figure Skating Show recaps the free dance:
In dance, Sinitsina and Katsalapov glided through the free dance to win their first world title by nearly seven points over Americans Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue. The Russians were second two years ago to France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who skipped this event.
“I am so happy, really, I don’t know what I can say right now. I just want to smile and cry,” Sinitsina said.
“The one thing that’s missing is the audience,” Katsalapov added.
Hubbell and Donohue, three-time U.S. champs and owners of two previous world medals, also set personal bests in the free dance (128.66) and overall (214.71). But this was Russia’s year, except in the men’s event.