Stepping onto international ice for the first time in over a year, Canadian figure skating sensation Paul Poirier travelled with his teammate, Piper Gilles, last spring to compete at the 2021 ISU World Figure Skating Championships. From the outside, Canadians only saw the pair put forth a dazzling display on route to their first world championship podium appearance and a bronze medal. But the reality from inside the competition was far more layered.
Throughout his travels, Poirier balanced strict travel regulations, the stunning sights and culture shocks of Stockholm, and the mounting pressures of the international stage. Now, for the first time, Poirier is sharing his personal travel log from his journey to the podium. Below, you can live vicariously through his day-to-day experiences amidst turbulent travel conditions and one of the most high-pressure competitions of his career.
Saturday and Sunday
It’s a familiar feeling as I take the ice for the last training session at home before departure. There’s certain grogginess in the body, mixed with adrenaline, that makes everything seem a little off. We do a last full run of our program, with some small, strange errors here and there. This too is normal before leaving – you want to save your best skate for the competition, where it matters most. We are ready.
Piper and I don’t usually skate on Saturdays, but this will be our last chance to skate for possibly a few days. Upon arrival in Sweden, we will be tested for COVID and put into quarantine until we get our negative result, however long that takes. While there is plenty of information to be had about how the event will unroll, and what measures will be taken, it’s impossible to know how smoothly everything will play out.
We’ve already been tested for COVID twice this week in Canada before leaving, and I know we have been living and training in a very safe environment. In many ways, this will be our first foray into the world, our first plane trip in 14 months, and our first live competition in just as many. These are things we would do regularly in any other year, a repeated routine of preparation, travel, and competition. As we get to the airport with luggage, COVID test results, and documentation in hand, it all feels incredibly normal and a little bit different.
Pearson Airport lacks its usual bustle of people, with the check-in aisles nearly empty and most stores closed. The check-in agent worries that our latest COVID test taken just the day before will not fall in the 48-hour window before we land in Stockholm, as required to enter. There is a discussion amongst the agents as several of us from the delegation are there at the same time. Some quick math, once we take into account the time change, gets us there just in time before our test result expires, and we are sent off.
The negative test has become an essential part of the passport now, required at all customs checkpoints and security screenings, and I am asked to produce it several times after just having carefully put it away as we zig-zag through a modified Pearson. The airport, however, feels very safe, and we finally make it onto a very empty plane. I have an entire row to myself and look forward to getting a few hours of sleep.
We land in Frankfurt very early on Sunday morning, another familiar place. While we know our way around, usually passing through several times a year, everything has been seemingly touched by the last year of pandemic. Dining options are limited, and we spend our several hours of layover in a quiet corner as the airport gradually fills up throughout the morning. We know that our participation in the competition depends on testing negative throughout the week, and so we are doing everything, avoiding crowds, handwashing regularly, and wiping down seats and tables as needed. It’s all we can do.
The second flight to Sweden is packed, and we sit in what is essentially our first crowd in over a year. Fortunately, half the flight is made up of familiar faces, various competitors and coaches and judges, and we take some comfort knowing that everyone is likely taking a similar level of precaution when there are medals on the line. We all deboard and gather at the front of the airport, unsure of how to greet each other at this time. But it feels good to be coming together as a family to do the thing we love most—skate!
Judging by the airport, everything seems to be much more normal here in Sweden compared to Canada, but we have little time to take it in as we are quickly ushered onto a bus and taken to the hotel. This bus ride will be our only taste of the city as we drive on the outskirts of the centre, admiring the architecture from afar.
Once we get to the hotel we are placed in line and tested one at a time and sent directly to our rooms with our bags and a meal. In the lobby, we see our competitors and friends who have arrived earlier and have finished their quarantine. Now it’s our turn.
Many of our teammates who arrived the day before are still in quarantine when we arrive, and so I expect to be in this room until about tomorrow afternoon. I spend the evening unpacking, doing my usual post-plane movement routine, and watching an episode or two of TV. Dinner arrives at some point, dropped at the door. The biggest challenge in Europe is keeping yourself awake after the red-eye flight, and so I’ll fight my closing eyes for a few more hours before allowing myself to go to sleep.
Much to my surprise, I woke up to a message on Monday morning at 8 AM: “Your test is negative. You can register.”
I head down to the registration office with my passport and exit with my accreditation tag and the usual souvenir tote. We now have full clearance to wander the competition bubble, which includes the hotel and the three ice rinks, which are all connected. There are some games both in the lobby and on the 11th floor, including ping-pong, pinball, and air hockey, but we won’t be touching any of those this week. Most of the time will be spent in our rooms, apart from training sessions and the competition.
Piper, our coach Juris, and I head out to the ice rink to get our bearings and figure out where everything is. Every day we must complete a self-reported health screen before entering the building. The screen, along with our accreditations and temperatures are checked before we enter the rink.
The tunnels are quite complicated, and there are several spiral staircases that all eventually lead you to the same place. We will do this trip so many times throughout the week that it will become second nature. Some of the hallways feel quite narrow and it’s impossible to distance from others, so we scurry through quickly.
Once we are backstage we see many familiar faces, friends we have not seen in over a year, if not more. Skating is usually a sport of hugs and air kisses, but I find myself dancing around others, unsure of their own level of comfort with proximity, and trying to keep my distance as well. Masks are mandatory except on the ice and in the off-ice warm-up zone, where some skaters are already getting ready for practice.
The main bowl, where we will be competing, is simply beautiful, with a ring of red seats surrounding Olympic-sized ice. I can imagine what this stadium would be as full of spectators, the whirr of anticipation that hovers over a competition rink. Instead, a few photographers and volunteers mill about. It will have to do.
After scouting out the practice ice as well, we return downstairs, making a final stop at the skating lounge, usually the heart of any competition rink. Typically, people are huddled around tables, sipping on coffees, getting warm after sitting in a rink, grabbing a small snack, greeting each other, and catching up as you hear varied languages coming from every corner of the room. On normal days, it would be a gathering place, but here, we are encouraged to grab what we need and head out. Anything to limit close contact with others.
As we return to the hotel for lunch, we are scanned out, likely so the organizers can keep a tally of how many people are in the rink at once. The dining hall has an identical procedure, and the event app provides real-time numbers so that you can time your meals at quieter hours.
The dining room is a bit tough to navigate, but we all serve ourselves with gloves, removing them and sanitizing our hands before eating. The dining room has a viewing gallery overlooking the rink so you can watch the skating as you eat, but those prime tables are fairly full when we arrive. Luckily, there are other rooms with tables, rooms that are quieter and where it’s easier to distance. All in all, we feel safe.
In the evening we head to the rink again for our first practice. At this hour the rink is fairly quiet, and we find a calm spot to warm up far enough away from others. Masks are kept on right until you step on the ice and put back on right as you get off. Everything runs smoothly and we have a successful practice, getting our legs back under us after a long trip. We did not necessarily expect to be able to skate at all today, and so we are grateful for the opportunity to be on the ice this one extra time. It feels so good to be out there again.
Tomorrow things will pick up, and we will be ready for it.
Today is likely our busiest day of the whole competition, with two practice sessions. We head to the rink around 9 AM and find a very crowded warm-up area, too crowded for our comfort. Fortunately, we are told there is a second warm-up room on the third floor, which we find totally empty. This will be our spot.
Everything at a competition is territorial. In this small slice of the world, the rink and the hotel, you build yourself a routine, even if just for a few days. You eat in the same spot, you warm up in the same spot, you sit in the same spot in the dressing room— anything to provide a semblance of control and comfort. This will be our spot.
After practice, we return back to the hotel for lunch and for a rest in our rooms. I realize in the afternoon that I have not had fresh air or sun in several days. On the 11th floor, there is a long stretch of balcony, and I lounge outside for a good fifteen minutes on one of the distanced chairs. It’s a tiny moment of serenity, and I am grateful for this small escape from the four walls of my room.
Our second training session in the evening is not in the main bowl but in the practice rink, and so we head up the many flights of stairs to get there. Here there are only two changerooms instead of four, and skaters use the same door to get on and off the ice, creating small traffic jams in the doorway as people rush on to maximize their precious 30 minutes of ice, while others scramble off, exhausted, trying to get their masks and skate guards back on. There really isn’t the space in this rink to run a smoother operation, though an extra five minutes of switchover time between groups would help. Everyone is doing their best with the system in place.
After two successful practices, we return to the hotel to stretch, unwind, and have a good meal. We start to notice the same competitors choosing the quiet room in the dining hall, perhaps the more cautious folk. We catch up with some of our teammates seated at a table a few metres away.
Our next training session isn’t until the next evening, and so I’m trying to force myself to keep awake so that I’m not up too early tomorrow with nothing to do. In normal times I would achieve this by sticking around the dining hall for a few hours, where many skaters partake in lengthy sobremesas to avoid the solitude of one’s room, or perhaps get hungry enough again to have seconds. We are not afforded such a luxury this time, but the chat with our teammates makes everything a bit more normal and familiar and connected in a time where we so often do not feel those things. We are still a skating family, after all.
I manage to sleep in until 9:30, but there is still a long day ahead of me, so moving at a leisurely pace will be key so as to not go too crazy.
This would usually be the time in the competition where we would enjoy our valuable morning off and head into the city to explore and sightsee a little, have a semblance of a feeling that we have visited Stockholm. However, in the current bubble setup, leaving the hotel is impossible, and we must find entertainment somewhere between the hotel and the rink. Fortunately, there is always skating happening.
There is news circulating that two people have had positive COVID tests, one a skater, and so they were not let into the bubble. The second individual is not at all identified, and overall there is little information about the next steps, about who else is getting retested in light of this news, or whether nothing changes at all for anyone else. All the more reason to keep to ourselves this week, just in case.
After a light workout in the morning, we head over to the rink to watch our Ladies’ skaters, who start competing today. Both are rookies at the worlds, and we are excited to cheer them on and see where they measure up on the international field.
Since watching skating is really the only thing to do, there is a generous group of skaters and coaches who are there to watch, to cheer, to enjoy some skating; very few of us have watched live skating in over a year, and even I find myself enjoying it more than usual. There is something familiar in those hard rink seats, in the whispered impressions between performances as the skaters wait for their scores, and it feels so good to see athletes competing and thriving and doing the thing they have trained for. I believe that for many of us the lockdowns have been a forceful reminder of how much we love to compete, and that excitement is palpable today. Soon it will be our turn.
After the Ladies, we return to the hotel for lunch and to get some rest before the practice tonight. We know that this one will be important as all the judges have now completed their entry quarantine and will be there to watch. The competition has truly begun.
Competition practices are nothing like training at home: you are dressed in costume, you are coiffed, and you are showing off. Today and tomorrow will be about finding a delicate balance between doing what we need to do to feel confident heading into the competition, doing not too much so that we aren’t exhausted come Friday, but doing enough so that the judging panel notices us and becomes excited about our programs. In a practice, you are sharing the ice with three or four other couples, and it’s very easy to disappear and be forgotten as the others perform their hearts out wanting to be noticed.
Piper and I are here for a medal, and so we too will do our utmost to stand out, to impress, to state that we are ready to win.
The practice runs smoothly, and I spend the rest of the evening unwinding, having dinner, and watching our Pairs teammates compete on TV before calling it an early night. We are one day closer.
As the main rink is busy once again with the other disciplines starting to compete, we have another quiet day with only one 30-minute practice session.
I was afraid of getting bored in the bubble, of running out of things to do, of feeling isolated, but really it feels like a normal event. Though it’s much less skating than we are used to at home, the practice sessions at a competition are always an extended performance that requires all your mettle, and even half an hour of skating can be exhausting. The goal is to conserve energy and stay grounded. So, even without a bubble, without a pandemic, most of the time at a competition is spent resting in your room either watching the skating or relaxing with your creature comforts, be it books or movies or napping or calling home. This is no different.
The week, however, does feel to be dragging on a bit. The quarantine measures forced us to arrive earlier than we typically would for a competition of this size, and we are now on our fourth day of practice. The wait feels long and every day we are more eager to finally compete, knowing that all the preparation really happened at home before we left and that we are ready.
Today we practice midday and return to the rink to watch our one Men’s entry, who is likely feeling the pressure to qualify for another spot for Canada for the 2022 Olympics. Mixed into the drama of this first international event in 14 months, countries are vying to qualify for maximum quotas for the Games next year, which will be determined by how their skaters place this week.
While winning Olympic spots is also in the back of my mind, the situation for Canadian Ice Dance feels a little less fragile, and we know that achieving our individual goal of a podium placement will easily help Canada secure a maximum number of entries (3) along with the strength of the two other couples here with us. I keep my focus on my own skating, the bit in my control. In the end, that’s what every competition is about, your own skating. Everything else is out of our hands.
Finally, we are on the eve of competing, and it’s exciting! The evening will be about minimizing distractions and getting some rest. Since we are now on our fourth day in the bubble we must return to the testing centre to be checked for COVID again. While I still don’t have a result when I go to bed, I’m thinking of nothing but skating. There are no distractions now.
It’s competition day and our practice is early. I set an alarm for the first time this week and immediately get ready. One last practice session before it really begins.
Competitions run in flights of five couples at a time. Since we will be skating in the last flight, as we return back to the hotel from practice the first skaters are already heading back to the rink to compete. It’s a strange feeling knowing that I still have several hours of waiting ahead of me before I get my chance to go out and perform.
I head back to my room and stretch. I don’t like to know how the competition is running and I don’t like to watch those skating before me, so I busy myself and avoid social media where results and scores might already be posted. I head down to lunch and have a small meal. I take a nap.
A few hours before we are set to leave, a text comes in from our coach: a couple has withdrawn, so we should arrive a few minutes in advance, just in case they start our group early.
I have missed this feeling. The wait in one’s room is agonizing, but eventually, the hour arrives and it’s time to go. We repeat the same walk to the rink and settle in the same corner to warm up. I go through the same motions, sensing my body and where it needs to loosen and where it needs to engage. I know the right exercises to remedy these imbalances, as I have done so many times before. I feel good, I feel ready.
Today we perform our Rhythm Dance, and all in all, it goes smoothly. We post a score matching our best from last season and position ourselves in fourth heading into the Free Dance, the final portion of the event. We are very close to the podium, closer than we have ever been, and the possibility feels very real. But that will have to wait until tomorrow.
Upon returning to the hotel we are informed that there was a positive COVID case in our event and that close contacts need a rapid test. It seems that more than half of the ice dancers are included in this close contact list, as many of us arrived at the same time and took the same bus to the hotel from the airport. It’s not entirely clear how close contacts are determined, and the list of those to be tested seems at once too thorough and not thorough enough, but fortunately, no other cases are detected. We feel bad for our competitors who have lost the chance to compete and hope they will be safe and healthy.
It’s evening now and I am gassed from the day’s events. I have a slow lengthy dinner and fuel up for the big day tomorrow. It will be the culmination of an entire year of preparation and I want to feel at my best.
Today we have a slightly later start and my body is grateful for the chance to rest a little more; it will need all of its energy for the competition tonight.
The top five will skate in the last flight and tensions are high on our midday practice. Everyone is trying to get comfortable, work out any sudden kinks that have arisen over the course of the week, and take advantage of one last chance to impress the judging panel before the event.
After practice, we still have several hours before the competition, and as always, I spend most of it in my room simultaneously trying to focus and distract myself. The Men are competing now, and I tune in on the television and enjoy what is really an excellent figure skating event. There are no signs of lack of training here despite the tumultuous year all of the athletes have had (and a shout-out to our teammate Keegan who qualified that extra spot). I’m itching to have my shot at competing.
All runs smoothly, like a dream. My body knows what it needs to do, as it has done hundreds of times before in the last two years. Piper and I feel connected and work together synergistically throughout the skate. It was good—we could not have done it better.
When we receive our scores we are in first place, but the top three are still to skate. We snake through the rigmarole that is the mix zone, a constant hurry-up-and-wait affair where each broadcaster has its own interview booth. This time, however, all of the familiar faces find themselves on a screen opposite us. While they ask about our performance, the tension is unspoken. We are elated with the quality of the performance, but we are all, journalists included, waiting to see if it will be enough for a podium finish.
Piper and I huddle in some chairs with cameras around us. Our coach Juris stands nearby with some other members of the Canadian delegation. The scores for the next couple come up: we did enough. We will have our first world medal.
The next few hours pass like a blur, as they always do post-event. After the competition ends we pass through the mix zone a second time, with questions now focused on the placement rather than the skate. We hop on the podium and Piper and I present our medals to each other instead of the usual officials. I squeeze in a quick chat with my parents and some loved ones as I untie my skates and change, and we rush up for a press conference, also happening virtually. Everything is a little bit familiar and a little bit strange, but we do not mind at all. We are world bronze medallists.
Finally, we are able to return to the hotel and I soak in a quiet moment by myself and reflect on the past year Piper and I have had, the starts and stops, the uncertainty, but our sheer will to continue to grow. I’m so very proud of us and our team.
The pandemic provides us little opportunity to celebrate, but we have a small, distanced toast in the hallway with the rest of the Canadian team, and call our other coaches Carol and Jon on speakerphone as they were unable to travel with us. Really, these small festivities are enough for me. There will be ample time at home to continue enjoying this victory with all those who have been along for the journey. I cannot wait to see them.
Sunday and Monday
The last day of the competition is always Gala day, where the top skaters perform again and let their hair down and skate simply to entertain, not to win. Most competitors who are not skating are leaving this morning, and the hotel is oddly quiet.
We both enjoy the skate today, but I am now feeling anxious to get home, to get some fresh air, to see my family. I know most of this will have to wait for the two weeks’ quarantine back in Canada, but the sooner I get there the better.
For today I enjoy the last day I have with my skating family, both my remaining Canadian teammates and many skaters from elsewhere, some of which I have been competing against for nearly two decades. We have been witness to the ups and downs of each other’s careers, and while we have sometimes come out on top and sometimes come out below, we all share the same mission: to pursue excellence and victory. And we have all done so despite a pandemic, despite lockdowns, despite closures and missed competitions, and despite the mental gymnastics required as we prepared for an event that may or may not happen.
I’m still amazed the event has run as smoothly as it did, considering we were entering a situation of unknowns, and the organizers and volunteers have been stellar in ensuring that we have been safe and healthy and able to return home. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to compete after nearly 14 months of nothing. Competing is our lifeblood, our reason for being.
I wish I could share with you all the stories contained in this one event, this week that for hundreds of skaters is the culmination of years of hard work. I wish you could see all the moments of elation, of disappointment, the hard days of training, of running headlong into roadblocks, the days of rest, the days of feeling weak, the days of warm belonging, the days of tears, the days of victory. In competition, we celebrate all these things, and they make up the fabric that is the life of an athlete.
I am so inspired by my teammates and my competitors, all of who have overcome this season that has been like nothing we could imagine. And together, we did it.
It has been a good week. But now I see the CN Tower out the window and I know I’m nearly there. Home.