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Poirier: Cancellation of Canadian championships a bit of a relief amid uncertainty

TORONTO — The morning after the Canadian figure skating championships were cancelled due to COVID-19, virtually ending a season that never got off the ground, Paul Poirier went to the rink.

TORONTO — The morning after the Canadian figure skating championships were cancelled due to COVID-19, virtually ending a season that never got off the ground, Paul Poirier went to the rink.

"It was a really strange morning, we just all still showed up at the rink, even though the announcement had come the night before," Poirier said. "None of us really knew what to do, because we didn't have time to kind of process what had happened.

"(Tuesday) morning we had no clue. So we all just showed up at the rink anyways. Because what else are you going to do?"

The reigning Canadian ice dance champion with partner Piper Gilles said there is still a small chance they'll compete at the world championships in Stockholm in March -- if the championships even happen, and under the right protocols.

Otherwise, he and Gilles are content to start focusing on next year's Beijing Olympics.

"I'm OK honestly," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "In a lot of ways, the decision is a relief. It's sad and it's weird. I've not (missed) a Canadian championships, whether it's the baby one or the big one, in almost 20 years."

The Canadian championships, originally scheduled for this month in Vancouver, were pushed back to Feb. 8-14, then cancelled outright on Monday evening.

"A lot of us athletes have been speaking to one another the last few weeks as nationals has been ramping up, and trying to figure out how we want to all approach training, and I think a lot of people have been just ready to kind of move on and start preparing for the Olympic season," said Poirier, who was eighth at the 2018 Olympics with Gilles. 

"I think that's probably the best use of our time right now, rather than just kind of training with so much uncertainty, which makes it really hard to do anything for a competition that might be cancelled the day before."

Poirier said they kept Tuesday morning's practice in Toronto fun. The four dance teams learned each other's programs. They did a synchronized routine, videotaped and tweeted by coach Carol Lane. 

Canadian skaters have been grounded for nearly a year. The world championships last March in Montreal were one of the first major international events scrapped due to the global pandemic.

Skate Canada International in October was also cancelled. Skate Canada Challenge, the qualifier for the national event, is being held virtually. Skaters videotaped their programs, which are being broadcast and judged last weekend and this weekend.

Skate Canada's CEO Debra Armstrong said the tough decision was made in the skaters' best interest. 

"It's always been about athletes safety," Armstrong said. "Our athletes need an appropriate amount of time to train properly. And I don't mean partially or disrupted, I mean trained properly to be in peak performance condition."

COVID-19 protocols vary across the country. While Ontario skaters were given a high-performance sport exemption to train indoors, Alberta athletes have had to skate outdoors.

"So any training that's happening in the province of Alberta is happening outdoors. And that is not optimal, obviously," Armstrong said. "B.C. actually is probably one of the lesser restricted provinces from a training perspective. But 88 per cent of our competitors (at nationals) will have come from outside British Columbia. So, they're getting on planes, and they're traveling when we're told everywhere in the country, not-essential travel should not happen."

Armstrong said doing the event virtually poses the same challenges around skaters not being able to adequately train.

Keegan Messing, who was third in men's singles at Skate America in October in Las Vegas, is the only Canadian team member who's competed in a live event this season.

The U.S. championships are this weekend in Vegas. A bitter pill for Canadians?

"I mean this sincerely, not really," Armstrong said. "The circumstances in our country are very different, I would say markedly different than how things are being managed in the United States. 

"I just know that at the end of the day, we have to live with what's happening in our jurisdiction and pay attention to what provincial governments and public health authorities are telling us in our country, and we have to make our decisions based on that."

Poirier said he'll watch the U.S. event with no feelings of jealousy.

"I like skating, I'll probably watch because I'm curious to see what people are doing," said the 29-year-old from Unionville, Ont. "But really, the truth is this has been a challenging season for everyone. Everyone's faced a lot of setbacks. Everyone's made very different choices, that are probably not the most ideal choices, but the best they could make, given whatever limitations they've had. 

"Even just looking at the competitions so far this season, everyone you can tell has had to make some compromises with their preparations and their training."

Poirier said if he and Gilles can get through the season unscathed and healthy, that'll be enough. And whether they arrive at the Olympics having had four competitions this season or zero, it won't make a difference.

"I feel a little bit stoic about it. But I don't know if there is another way to be, in the end, it is what it is," he said. "I can't really wish it otherwise. I still get to skate (at practice). And that's already really good given just how much is closed down right now."

Armstrong said Skate Canada will work on plans for high performance camps in the spring. 

The world championships, meanwhile, are still scheduled for March 22-28, but there is much doubt in the skating community about them happening.

Poirier said, if they do, he and Gilles would have to carefully consider factors such as what the bubble would look like, if the championships will still used for Olympic qualifying, whether prize money will still be offered, and whether they'd have to quarantine for two weeks upon returning home.

Gilles and Poirier, meanwhile, will "compete" in the Challenge event Friday and Saturday, along with the senior women's and men's singles events. Programs were pre-recorded and will be streamed on Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro won the pairs event last weekend. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press