MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Canadian ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were so burnt out after an Olympic season of isolation and dodging COVID-19 that their six-week break over the summer wasn't just a choice — it was a necessity.
"It was what we needed in order to be able to continue," Poirier said. "I think otherwise, we just would have … "
"We wouldn't have come back," Gilles said.
Making their season debut after the longest stretch of down time of their careers, Gilles and Poirier captured gold at Skate Canada International, the third of their career. And they said they've never felt stronger.
"Absolutely," Gilles said. "We're rested, we're mentally healthy, everything is right where it needs to be. We learned a lot from the very stressful season last year … we've really made sure that we were ready and happy and believing in who we were, which I think helped."
Japan's Rinka Watanabe captured gold in women's singles earlier Saturday on a rough day for Canadians Madeline Schizas and Gabrielle Daleman.
Japan's reigning world champion Shoma Uno overtook countrymate Kao Miura to win the men's singles gold, while Canada's Keegan Messing was fourth. Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won Japan's first-ever Grand Prix pairs title.
Gilles earned 128.47 points for their passionate program to Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita," music they'd thought about skating to since the beginning of the partnership in 2011, and scored 215.70 overall for gold.
Great Britain's Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson won the silver (209.18), while Canadians Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha claimed the bronze (195.49).
Gilles, from Toronto, and Poirier, from Unionville, Ont., had considered retirement over the summer. It wasn't until mid-July that they decided to continue. They had no choreography done, nor music even selected. They skipped the early B circuit competitions, and hadn't known if they'd be ready for the Grand Prix season.
It certainly didn't show Saturday as the 30-year-olds brought the crowd at Paramount Fine Foods Centre to its feet.
"I think we had an absolute blast performing 'Evita' for the first time," Gilles said. "It was a really special moment. So we're really proud of everything that we did today."
Their second Grand Prix this season is in Espoo, Finland, Nov. 25-27. Skaters are assigned to two Grand Prixs, and the top six in each of the disciplines compete in the Final in December.
Skating to the soundtrack from the Japanese TV show "Jin," Watanabe opened with a triple Axel — a jump that still eludes most female skaters — to win the women's singles title with 197.59. It was her Grand Prix debut, on either the junior or senior level.
"I was pretty nervous but I think I did pretty well, so I'm really happy to have done good, solid, today," she said.
Watanabe, who had lived and trained in Vancouver from 2017 until the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to return to Japan, is planning to include two triple Axels in her free program at her next event.
It was a disastrous day for Schizas and Daleman, who had been 1-2 after Friday's short program.
Schizas, a 19-year-old from Oakville, Ont., and the reigning Canadian champion, tumbled down to seventh place with 180.59. Skating last, and to music from the "West Side Story" soundtrack, she fell once and two-footed a couple of landings.
"I knew full well skating that a door was wide open for me. Like so well," Schizas said. "I knew that I could have won this event just by not falling on my face there on a double jump.
"I didn't think it was going to be that hard. I knew full well that door was open. I just didn’t figure out how to walk through it."
Schizas spotted a plastic flower holder on the ice during her program, likely from a flower thrown after a previous skater, and missed by the young skaters who scoop up flowers and stuffed animals. She considered stopping her program to pick it up.
"But once you interrupt your program, how does everyone feel about your program performance?" she said.
Instead, she picked it up afterward and took it to the judges' table.
"I didn't slip on it, I just saw it. I just skated by it like four times," Schizas said. "From about the third or fourth jump in the program, I was like, oh gosh, there's something there," she said. "But I'm not going to stand here and blame some stupid piece of plastic for my bad skate. I could have skated well anyways. I just have to learn how to focus a little bit more.
"I think I've learned how to skate at these events, I just haven't learned how to compete."
Daleman, a 24-year-old from Newmarket, Ont., and two-time Olympian, looked on the cusp of a fabulous comeback after several rough seasons, but she fell on her third jump, a triple flip, and the program continued to unravel from there. She fell once more, and nearly fell a third time to finish 10th (171.61).
"I feel disappointed. Practices have been great. Warm-up was great. Definitely was nervous going into this," said Daleman, the 2017 world bronze medallist. "But, it's my second competition out. I can't expect perfect. But I did fight for everything. I didn’t give up. I could have just as easily let the program go but the crowd was absolutely incredible."
Starr Andrews of the U.S. scored 191.26 to win silver, while You Young of South Korea, who also landed a triple Axel, captured the bronze (190.15).
In the men's free skate to cap the night, Miura, the leader after the short program, broke a skate lace before warm-up and only jumped on the ice with 30 seconds remaining. The 17-year-old fell on his quad Salchow, and dropped to silver with 265.29.
Uno scored 273.15 for gold, while Matteo Rizzo of Italy captured the bronze (251.03).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 29, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press