Gone are the days of athletes being thrust into glory for mere physical feats alone. It’s not good enough to be the best anymore, we’ve come to expect more, athletes have to stand for something. In our June digital cover story with Olympic figure skater, Paul Poirier, it became evident that’s exactly who Poirier is: an athlete with skill, with grit and, perhaps more notably, with courage, ready to use his voice within the LGBTQ+ community and in sport.
It’s been a long road to get here, in a career where being in your thirties sounds like retirement, at 29-years-old Poirier is just blossoming into his prime. With partner Piper Gilles, the pair are set to head into the Winter Olympics as Team Canada’s number one for the first time. The pressure is felt, but Poirier seems up for the challenge—after all the last year of the pandemic has given a crash course in how to overcome any obstacle. Expanding on our first chat, Poirier, sat down to talk about lessons learned, his evolution as an athlete and how to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Through the pandemic, did your identity as an athlete shift or change at all? What did you learn about yourself during that time?
I don’t know if I’ve had some big lesson that has come out of the pandemic, but I think for me, and for Piper as well, the pandemic has confirmed a lot of things that our careers have already taught us.
There’s a big tendency in sport to overtrain, especially at this top level. You always want to do more and feel that you’re doing the most you can. A lot of athletes tend to downplay rest and recovery. It’s a very hard lesson to learn until getting injured enough times beats it out of you. I think we were able to deal with the pandemic well psychologically because that was something being an athlete taught us: you can take four months off and then get back on the ice and, after a few weeks, you can be back in shape. I don’t think we’ve made any big changes throughout this pandemic except what was forced upon us by the circumstances.
I think our relationship as a team—me and Piper and our coaches, and then to a lesser extent, our training mates—all feel like we’re supporting each other and that’s created a healthy, strong environment that I think just makes all of us better.
If you could go back to the months leading into the pandemic, is there any advice that you would give yourself knowing what you know now?
I think I would tell myself that I would be stronger on the other side of it. For me, the pandemic has been a really interesting opportunity to reflect on my life, not only as an athlete. I think we have a tendency as athletes to stake our sense of self-worth in what we do and what we’ve accomplished. During the pandemic, especially during the lockdown when I couldn’t train or skate, I had to kind of wrestle with, ‘Who is Paul as a person?’
Normally, I would drown myself in work and in training to kind of avoid dealing with things. Suddenly I had all of this empty time to think about how the last few years have gone and how I’ve been spending my time, and what I’ve been doing, and what kind of energy I want to be putting out into the world. I think it’s been a really good opportunity to challenge a lot of those things.
"I think we have a tendency as athletes to stake our sense of self-worth in what we do and what we've accomplished. During the pandemic, especially during the lockdown when I couldn't train or skate, I had to kind of wrestle with, ‘Who is Paul as a person?’"
What do you think defines an athlete that ultimately speaks to the spirit and heart of what you do?
I always say that with sport, in my experience, there are two kinds of athletes. There are the athletes that love to perform, love the fans and adrenaline that come with competing, and they put up with the training because they want the glory of those moments.
On the other hand, you have another type of athlete. The athletes that love training and that day-to-day process of trying to figure things out, “What am I going to do today? How is this going to make me better?” I very much put myself in that camp. For me, the pandemic has challenged me because even if you live to train and that’s really why you do what you do, you need the competitions to test out whether the work you’re doing is working. I think the pandemic has revealed to me how much I do actually enjoy competing. I didn’t realize it until it was taken away from me.
It’s further down the road, but with the winter Olympics, where is your mind at?
This is my fourth time going through the four-year Olympic cycle as an athlete. The thing that I’ve learned the most is that the unexpected always happens. It’s kind of like Murphy’s law, anything that can happen seems to happen during the Olympics season.
I think what will be different about this Olympic season, is the fact that this past season we haven’t competed at all. That’s given us a lot of free time and it’s also given us time to start preparing things for next year. Every year we choose new music and we choreograph new routines, so we’ve done a lot of that work already. This is our first time going into the Olympics as strong podium contenders, that’s super exciting. It’s also our first time going into the games as Canada’s number one, which is a very different feeling than being Canada’s number three. This is kind of a big opportunity—it’s what we’ve been preparing for our entire careers.
You mentioned Murphy's law and planning for the unexpected, how do you maintain a semblance of control when there are so many variables that you can't control?
I think the first thing is to be okay with not being in control of everything, that’s something that I’ve had to train myself to be comfortable with. Another thing that I think is so important is to connect with your team when it feels like control is out of your hands. We work with psychologists, nutritionists, personal trainers, Pilates instructors, dance teachers, acting coaches, and more. That’s our team. That’s our family. When we have so little control over the state of the world, I think feeling connected with people is a great antidote to know that you are on this journey with other people who are there for you and that are supporting you and giving you their most just as you are giving them your most.
"It’s also our first time going into the games as Canada's number one, which is a very different feeling than being Canada's number three. This is kind of a big opportunity—it’s what we've been preparing for our entire careers."
Athletes have a spirit of being comfortable with being uncomfortable, how do you embrace discomfort?
I think part of it is the way you’re hardwired and I think the second thing is really like anything else: practice it. I can’t say it any better than that. At a certain point, you have to bite the bullet and put yourself in uncomfortable situations. What you always find is that you get through them. Of course, there’s going to be things that don’t work out and there’s going to be lots of failures, but that’s part of any pursuit that you’re going to have, and you have to be okay with it.
For me, the most important thing to do is to avoid complacency. We start pretty much every day on the ice with 30 minutes of basic drills — and I mean super basic drills, things a five-year-old that has been skating for six months can do. I’ve seen so many skaters take that 30 minutes and just do it because they’re supposed to. But you can take those 30 minutes and use it as an opportunity to say, “How can I do this basic drill better today? What can I focus on today?” A lot of what we do and what we pursue requires a large amount of repetitive mundane tasks, and that’s true of everything. I think the challenge is always to take the most simple thing that you do and ask yourself what you can do better or how you can do more.
That to me is the hardest discomfort to embrace, stepping out of being super comfortable in those routine things you do every day and making even those things slightly uncomfortable.
What kind of routines or rituals have given you a sense of stability throughout this time?
Community will always be my biggest anchor. I was very lucky because I spent the first nine months of the lockdown with my family, with my parents. I think dealing with the lockdown, especially at the beginning, would have been much harder [if I was alone].
Normally I have a very regular training schedule that I’ve probably been on for 15 years now. I start very early in the morning. I wake up at the same time every day. I eat pretty much the same thing every morning. My life is very regimented. There’s a very strong sense of routine. I have taken this whole pandemic, especially at the beginning, as an opportunity to not be quite so organized and allow myself to be not so regimented.
As an athlete, the goalposts seem very defined: be the best in the world, get on the podium, rank in the top. How do these change as you evolve as an athlete—does the angle ever change?
It’s funny, if you had asked me this question 15 years ago, I had this master plan where I was going to go and train really hard and compete at the Vancouver games and get a lot of experience and then train really hard for four more years. Then I’d win my gold medal in Sochi in 2014 and retire at the sweet old age of 22 and move on with my life. Of course, life did not pan out that way.
In a lot of ways, my career has extended far beyond what I anticipated when I was a younger athlete. I didn’t anticipate I’d be skating this long and I think my relationship with skating has changed because of that in two ways. The first is that we’re lucky because we are in an artistic sport. We get to express ourselves. We get to put something out there that speaks to who we are. As my career has extended, I’ve given a lot more thought to that and what I want to share with the world.
As I’ve matured, it’s become part of my goal to put out work that I’m really proud of and that moves other people. I think this notion of being able to touch people on an emotional or psychological level is what makes our sport special. I’ve come to really enjoy that.
That said, Piper and I had a frustrating last Olympic cycle. From 2014 to 2018, we got stuck between sixth and eighth in the world, and we could not move out of that little box. We felt like we were making really big impacts on a sort of artistic level where we were starting to be noticed and a lot of people were coming up to us and telling us how much they connected with our work and what we were doing. But after Pyeongchang, where we placed eight, we had to reflect on why we were competing. If my only connection to skating was simply to want to move people and entertain people, I could very gladly do that in shows. So the question became, “If we’re going to keep competing, why are we competing?”
We realized that if we wanted to stay in the competition circuit for another Olympic cycle, the reason was to win. That’s the thing that doesn’t change in sport. Whether you’re at a little regional invitational competition, or whether you’re at the Olympic game, the actual training of trying to get better than other people, and then trying to win competitions, doesn’t change. The stakes change and the field changes, but kind of what you need to do remains constant.
What excites you most about the road ahead, whether that's the immediate road ahead or a lot further down?
First and foremost, I’m excited to compete again after so long. It’s going to feel so good, even if it’s a weird competition, even if there’s no audience, even if it’s not like a competition we’ve seen before. I am so excited to just be out there and competing and doing what we love.
We just have to ride out the Olympic season. There will be several competitions leading up to the games. A lot of the tough choices are going to be made now in the spring and in the summer: what routines we’re going to have, what tricks we’re going to do, and how we want to approach our strategy for the games. I think it’s going to be a really exciting year to be there, to be doing what we love, and to be doing it as the top in Canada. It’s our first time being number one in Canada, going into the games. We have all of the opportunity in the world to shine, and to share with Canada and with the world who we are, and what we’re about. It’s going to be a really special year for us and as I said before, I just hope we allow ourselves to enjoy it.