Rediscovering Paul Poirier, one of Canada’s top figure skaters – The Varsity
The curly hair, the chiseled mustache, the dazzling smile and the eyes that sparkle with excitement. These trademarks of Canadian figure skater Paul Poirier are usually displayed on sheets of white ice – but here they were against the backdrop of many books and plants in Poirier’s living room when I called him on Zoom to interview him for the university.
You might know Poirier for a plethora of reasons, the most obvious being his three Olympic appearances – but, on top of that, he’s a Tal University alumnus and a former Varsity Blues athlete. He is also a trailblazer, as a Canadian figure skater who came out publicly as gay. Poirier has a lot going for him, but in his interview he came across as an ordinary guy. An ordinary guy who is incredibly good at skating.
Years before his Olympic fame, Poirier began skating at the age of five, at the suggestion of his parents. “My parents are very athletic people,” Poirier recalls. “We didn’t take music lessons, we didn’t do anything else, but they really wanted us to play sports.”
Given that skating was in his blood and considering that the late 90s of Poirier’s childhood saw the boom in American figure skating, it didn’t take long for Poirier to fall in love with this sport. Before he knew it, he was skating five or six days a week and got involved in the sport when he was nine years old. “It didn’t seem like a big decision at the time. But I think looking back now… it’s actually a really big decision,” he said.
Just as he balances his weight on the ice, Poirier balanced the weight of schoolwork and his professional skating career from an early age. “[Being in school] is something that grounds me… it gives me time to think about something other than skating,” he said. When deciding which college to attend, skating was the first thing on Poirier’s mind, so he looked for a school that would fit in well with his athletic life. “I was living and training in Toronto and I didn’t want to move to go to school… [U of T] gave me the most options for the programs I was interested in.
He enjoyed his time at U of T and eventually earned a degree in linguistics. Poirier’s signature smile showed when I asked him about his decision to choose linguistics as his major. “I was strong in math and science, but I really enjoyed my language classes,” said Poirier, a twinkle in his eye. Linguistics is about dissecting how languages work, he said, but with math involved — the perfect marriage between his strengths and his passions.
Poirier speaks four different languages - French and English fluently, Spanish and Japanese roughly. His two lives often intersect, such as when he was able to communicate with Japanese fans. “Figure skating is very popular [in Japan]… sometimes [fans] send messages in Japanese and I can…reply, and that’s really nice,” he said.
Fans, bright lights and all that comes with figure skating are nothing new to Poirier, who has been competing in the Olympics since he was a teenager. His first was the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with his partner at the time, Vanessa Crone. Changing partners from Crone to Piper Gilles was part of the long and difficult journey he undertook to get to the Beijing Olympics in 2022.
Poirier mentioned that there are always adjustments to be made when working with a partner, and you have to learn a lot about how they deal with things like stress, fatigue and setbacks. “No two people skate exactly the same…there’s something my coaches call your ‘skating thumbprint’…there’s a certain way each person moves. a, and it’s not exactly the same as your partner’s,” he explained.
Eventually, Poirier and Piper Gilles learned to skate as a unified entity. After more than 10 years, an ankle injury and an eighth-place finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, the duo stepped into the spotlight at the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
When asked why the road to the Beijing Olympics was so long and winding, Poirier sighed and looked away. “I’ve been doing this for a long time… An athlete’s journey is by no means a straight line. There are a lot of ups and downs,” he said.
“We’re still thinking about all the routines, all the programs we’ve had over the past 11 years skating together,” he added. “Each gave us skills and more self-knowledge that helped us in the next program we choreographed… This process in itself is actually really magical. Everything you have done has brought you to where you are.
The duo’s last Olympic trip lasted about two weeks. They were competing in the ice dance team event. They got off to a good start, placing fourth in their first rhythm dance, third in their free dance, and sixth in their next rhythm dance. In the final team event on February 14, the pair were looking for a high score in the free dance event to propel them to a good place on the final podium.
As soon as they started skating to Govardo’s cover of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road,” the choice of song began to make sense to the audience. Years of setbacks, injuries and complexities have led to this point. The long and winding road would soon come to an end.
The couple got off to a great start. Every spin, every step, and every slide sent waves of emotion through the audience. At the peak of the song, as music blasted in the background, the pair exited a twizzle set and entered a combination elevator. Everything was fine – until it wasn’t. Suddenly there was an abrupt pause during the lift and a leg that didn’t fully extend back.
When I asked him what was wrong, Poirier quickly replied:[It was] just a spacing issue. We were a bit too far apart. I’m actually really proud of that moment, because we were really able to improvise and make it a much cheaper mistake than it could have been, and that makes me really happy.
The duo ended up placing seventh overall. Asked about the implications of the error and the fact that he didn’t win a medal, Poirier thought about his answer for a moment. He had this duality going for him, of two sides fighting each other as he tried to come to terms with himself. On the one hand, he’s an athlete who is – as he put it – “the meanest to himself”, criticizing every part of his performance and constantly chasing a medal.
But the other half of him is completely different. It’s about a newfound maturity and an ability to accept unexpected results, something a young Poirier might not have been so comfortable with.
“It’s really nice to have medals, but they don’t transform who you are as a person like life does,” he finally said. “At the end of the day, you have to come to terms with what’s going on.”
When I asked him if he would participate in the Winter Olympics in Milan in 2026, Poirier said he was still undecided. One thing he is sure of for now, however, is that he has come to terms with the fact that he may never win an Olympic medal. “In [the hypothetical] world where I never have an Olympic medal – which is a possible world – does that make me a lesser person?” he asked me.
He never answered his own question. But the way he smiled and shook his head told me that while Poirier may not win a shiny medal, he has already won the battle that was going on deep inside him.