by Melanie Heaney | Photos by Danielle Earl

At the recent Canadian Tire National Skating Championships, all eyes were on the top group of skaters, but plenty of interesting stories played out among the teams outside the medals. In general, the depth of senior-level Canadian ice dance seems quite a bit deeper than it did the last time that the National Championships were held, in January 2020. A total of 13 teams competed, up from just nine in 2020.

In contrast to the U.S. Championships, also held the same weekend, Canadians admitted no spectators and closed its doors to media. The event was live-streamed within Canada on CBC and worldwide via Daily Motion, so that everyone could view the action, but aside from a few skaters that stuck around inside to watch some friends, the athletes had the task of performing for empty stands. The change came suddenly due to the surge of COVID-19’s Omicron variant—the closed-door policy was only announced on December 30, 2021. Since the 2021 Championships were cancelled instead of held in an empty arena, as many other countries were able to organize, most of the competitors expressed gratitude for being able to compete at all. 

Skate Canada named its team for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Sunday, and the dance entries follow the podium at the 2022 Canadian Championships. Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier will head to a second Olympic Games, while Laurence Fournier-Beaudry & Nikolaj Sorensen and Marjorie Lajoie & Zachary Lagha will make their Olympic debuts.

Gilles & Poirier, as expected, won their second Canadian title in commanding fashion, scoring 219.24 overall. Despite two significant cancellations in the past calendar year—2021 Canadians and December’s Grand Prix Final—Gilles & Poirier are enjoying their best year yet, having won the World bronze medal and a second Skate Canada International title in 2021. The loss of a live audience was felt a bit more in their rhythm dance, designed to be a crowd-pleasing bop to Elton John’s “I Guess That’s Why they Call it the Blues” and “I’m Still Standing,” but the calmer free dance to “The Long and Winding Road” was perhaps even more touching in a silent arena, as they paid equal attention to emotional impact and the technical details.

“We’re really proud of what we did out there,” Gilles said. “It’s so nice to be back at Canadians and performing for a Canadian crowd—that’s watching virtually again.”

They took advantage of extra training time, with the cancellation of the Grand Prix Final, to look at their programs and find opportunities to improve the choreography and the overall flow.

“We’ve made so many changes since the Grand Prix Series, so this is kind of us testing out the waters a little bit,” Gilles explained after the free dance. “Nothing’s on autopilot yet.”

Despite earning level four for all leveled elements in the free dance, they still see room to improve next month in Beijing.

“We’re really treating this competition as a training opportunity for the Olympic Games,” Poirier said. “That’s really where we want to be peaking and where we want to bring our best performances.”

As for the plan for the next few weeks, they feel that taking time to recover properly will be key to their success in Beijing. Although Skate Canada has not released concrete information on how they plan to fill the roster for the team event, Gilles & Poirier—who were not part of the gold-medal-winning team in Pyeongchang—are planning to participate.

“First and foremost, we’re going to take a few days off to rest and recover,” Poirier said. “This is really our last chance to get some rest before the Olympics. The Olympics is going to be a particularly hard event for us—doing hopefully both the team event and the individual event—that’s a lot of competitions back-to-back, and we’re not quite used to that, so we really want to make sure we’re managing our energy well.”

After earning an Olympic spot for Denmark to the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, but having to return it because Fournier-Beaudry was not eligible for Danish citizenship, she and Sorensen are heading to Beijing for Team Canada. Since deciding to represent Fournier-Beaudry’s home country, instead of Sorensen’s, in 2018, this team has had to overcome serious injury, but things are coming together at just the right time. After winning their first Grand Prix medals in fall 2019, Sorensen required knee surgery that kept them out of the 2020 Canadian Championships; they also had to withdraw from their hometown 2020 World Championships, before the event was cancelled. Sorensen’s rehab was a long process, but he is skating well now and he is also—finally—a Canadian citizen, after living in Montreal for about a decade.

While making the Olympic Team was surely on their minds at Canadians this year, they had another hurdle to overcome—the first outing for a new free dance, created just a couple of weeks before they arrived in Ottawa. Fournier-Beaudry & Sorensen had skated their 2020-21 free dance in live competition only once, so they initially decided to keep using the program this season. But as the year progressed, the program wasn’t fitting well for them anymore, and about two weeks before Canadians, they decided to take the plunge and try something new.

“The other program that we had meant a lot to us when it was made back in 2020,” Sorensen explained. “It was actually an idea that we came up with when we were off the ice, and we were trying to navigate the beginning of this pandemic. So, you know, feelings change, and what we thought we needed changed during the season. So we’ve been playing around with this idea for a while, and finally made the decision to change the free dance.”

“When I started skating, it [Gladiator] was the soundtrack that I had in my basement, and I kept listening to it, over and over again,” Fournier-Beaudry said. “It was a dream I had to skate on this music.”

Sorensen had also loved Gladiator when he was young, from a film and cinematography aspect, so he easily got on board with the idea. They retained the costumes, the overall mood, and many of the elements in their new program to music from Gladiator. Though the decision to switch programs came late in the game and may seem hasty, Fournier-Beaudry was beyond prepared; she’d wanted to skate to this music since she was a little girl and had the program—and all of its music cuts—roughly laid out in her head.

“We wanted to keep our elements from the free dance because we loved it, and we knew we could execute them well,” Fournier-Beaudry said. “So how could we build that [new] music in order to support the material that we had? I think the final cut that we have right now at Canadian Nationals is built upon the elements.”

Sorensen was quick to jump and point out that Fournier-Beaudry, who comes from a very musical family, always cuts their music. Typically they have more time at the beginning of the season, but he conveyed that he had full confidence in her talent, even considering the condensed timeline. “Laurence has made all these cuts, knows the soundtrack inside out, and knew exactly what kind of music would fit the different elements,” Sorensen said. “She deserves a lot of credit for being able to make this music change possible without having to change 100% of our free program.”

They had already reworked their diagonal step sequence between their Grand Prix assignments, and the character step sequence has some new highlights now, but many of the other elements are things that they have been training for well over a year now. They still have some time to tweak the program in the next few weeks, if they choose to, but they should be encouraged by the reception at its first outing—it scored 125.61 points, and they earned level four on almost all applicable elements. They scored 206.65 overall, easily enough for the silver medal.

Although their total score of 192.67 was enough to secure the bronze medal by a margin of just over ten points, Marjorie Lajoie & Zachary Lagha made mistakes in their free dance and were visibly disappointed with their efforts. They also repeated their free dance from last season, and the program to selections from Rio demands precision and electric energy throughout the program. They gave it their all and stayed with the program to the end, but it looked more like work this time around. A few slips and misses of the blade marred their technical efforts, including a slip on the twizzle sequence from Lajoie that resulted in a level two and a loss of GOE. All in all, it wasn’t the worst type of mistake to make—they still earned 6.52 points for the element, and a well-executed set of level four twizzles probably would have earned around 9 points.

“Today was honestly pretty hard,” Lajoie said after the free dance. “We’re not used to that—usually in competition, it’s going pretty well. We’re really happy with the final result, of course, it’s just a bit disappointing how we skated.”

Their free dance opens with two lifts, back to back, which is not a common element layout and lays the foundation for a very explosive program.

“It was a lot of research for the lifts,” Lagha said. “We wanted to do a combo [combination lift], but we couldn’t find a good way to do it. Then our lift coach proposed that we could do like a false combo lift. It’s pretty original, and not a lot of people have this in the program.”

They can take a lot of positives away from this event as well, though. They earned a level 4 on their diagonal step sequence, topping 11 points for that free dance element, when they had only earned level 2 in both of their Grand Prix assignments. And they will get another chance with this entertaining dance next month as members of the Canadian Olympic Team.

“To think that we’re going to go to the Olympics is an amazing feeling,” Lajoie said. “I think that we have grown so much over four years. We had our first three years as senior and one fully in the pandemic, so I think we’ve grown a lot.”

Carolane Soucisse & Shane Firus finished fourth and will be first alternates to the Olympic Team. In a tight battle for fourth, they just edged out newcomers to the Canadian Championships Marie-Jade Lauriault & Romain Le Gac, 182.54 to 181.74. In the past two years since their last Canadians, at which they finished third but with major mistakes, they have made a major change, moving their training base to the Scarboro FSC near Toronto to train with Carol Lane, Jon Lane, and Juris Razgulajevs. Formerly at the Ice Academy of Montréal (I.AM), where many of their Canadian rivals and quite a few of the world’s best teams train, they still have the benefit of training with one of the top teams in the world in Gilles & Poirier, but the Scarboro group is smaller than I.AM. 

“This season has been the best season of our career together,” Soucisse said. “We’re so happy that we decided to make that change. It really gave us the little extra push that we wanted to get. We felt that the last couple of years, we kind of lost a little bit of who we were, and we were really able to regain this with Carol and Juris and Jon.”

“The biggest thing that we worked on as a correction is bridging the gap between training and competition to make them more relevant to each other,” Firus added. “Before, we found there was a big gap between when we went to compete and what we practiced.”

“We were training really well, but in competition [in the past], we were a little rocky,” Soucisse explained. “We’re really happy about this season. We were able to get that consistency. It feels great.”

Admittedly a bit mistake-prone in the past, they made the coaching change after falls at both the 2020 Canadian Championships and the 2020 Four Continents Championships, where they finished seventh. They did have mistake in the one-foot sequence in the free dance here in Ottawa, but the slight step certainly felt like a smaller mistake than previous ones, and did not mar the overall performance. Besides consistency issues, they have also tried on several different styles over the past few years, and in the past, have tended to find one program that works well and another that sees changes throughout the season. This year, they found a groove early with both of their programs, and they blossomed over the season as they became even more comfortable. Soucisse & Firus will head to the Four Continents Championships in Tallinn, Estonia, next week.

Lauriault & Le Gac were hot on Soucisse & Firus’s heels in their Canadian Championships debut, earning a total of 181.74 points in their fifth-place finish. Together since 2014, Lauriault & Le Gac represented Le Gac’s home country of France through 2021, but have lived in Montréal throughout their partnership and have been married since December 2015. Due to Canadian pandemic travel restrictions, they were unable to compete internationally in the 2020-21 season, so having sat out a season already, they were able to switch to represent Canada quickly this season. Lauriault was released from France first, as she is a Canadian citizen, and Le Gac’s release was valid as of January 1.

“Canada is part of our story,” Le Gac said. “I think it’s going to be a new experience—different than France—with a new whole team. I’m sure we’re really going to enjoy all the moments we are representing Canada.”

“I feel like we’re really lucky because we have represented both of our own countries,” Lauriault added. “We represented France, and I think it was important for us to live that moment. And as we go into the next steps of our career, I think it’s going to feel great for me to represent the country where I was born. We’re really lucky, because there are not many people that can do that, so we’re really grateful for that.”

They competed at Skate Canada Challenge in December in order to qualify for this event, but were perhaps a bit rusty after some time out of live competition. A rough rhythm dance held them in third place at Challenge, although they did win the free dance. Here at the Canadian Championships, it was also the free dance where they excelled, edging out former training mates Soucisse & Firus, 110.45 to 109.99. Their biggest strength is in their lifts, so they often make up ground in the free dance, where they have more opportunities to show off their dynamic abilities.

Lauriault & Le Gac’s ISU technical minimums from their last international season competing for France are still valid, so they will be able to represent Canada next week at the Four Continents Championships.

Also making a big change this season, Haley Sales & Nikolas Wamsteeker are now training at I.AM’s satellite academy in London, Ont., with Scott Moir at the helm. They had previously been with Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe at the Vancouver Ice Dance Academy since the beginning of their partnership in 2014. Sales was new to ice dance then, and Wamsteeker had also been working with Wing & Lowe since he began ice dancing. They had been the only senior-level team training there since 2018.

“We were with Megan and Aaron for a very long time—well, my entire career,” Wamsteeker said. “So I was looking just to […] change things up, and train with some other senior teams.”

“We really wanted the opportunity to be around more senior teams, and just try out some new voices,” Sales added. “We were at that point in our career when we were ready for a little refresh.”

At this event, Sales & Wamsteeker finished sixth in the rhythm dance, but hit the elusive 70.00-point mark, which they had just missed at Challenge. They were seventh in the free dance, but held on to sixth place overall, earning 173.59 total points. Their free dance to Dua Lipa’s “Scared to Be Lonely,” in particular, was performed well. They carried the energy through the performance and nailed the twizzle sequence at the very end. Although they noted that they missed the audience, they were happy to back at Canadians.

“Our first senior National Championships were in this building [in 2017],” Sales said, “so we’re just really happy to come back.”

“We were competing against our coach last time we were here,” Wamsteeker added. Sales & Wamsteeker were fifth in their senior national debut in 2017, while coach Moir won the Canadian title with Tessa Virtue. This year, they reached their goal of finishing in the top six and being assigned to the Four Continents team.

Just missing out on the top six were Alicia Fabbri & Paul Ayer, who were sixth in the free dance, but had to overcome a fall right at the end of their rhythm dance that left them in eighth in that segment. Their total score of 171.15 was not enough to climb onto the Four Continents team, but they gave a beautiful effort in their free dance, set to music from Frida. Fabbri & Ayer had won Challenge with a score of 179.61, so they had entered this competition with high hopes. They train at I.AM in Montréal.

Molly Lanaghan & Dmitre Razgulajevs, training mates of Gilles & Poirier and Soucisse & Firus at Scarboro FSC, finished eighth, earning 169.86 points. While their tango free dance was well done, it was their campy, vivacious rhythm dance to music from the Spice Girls that most will probably remember for years to come. They were fifth at the last Canadians in 2020 and although they fell several placements, it is a testament to the increased depth in the roster this year.

Four teams made senior national debuts in Ottawa. Lily Hensen & Nathan Lickers, Jessica-Lee Behiel & Jackson Behiel, Maia Iannetta & Liam Carr, and Torri Hollstein & Joshua Burger finished ninth, 11th, 12th, and 13th, respectively. Elysia-Marie Campbell & Liam Fawcett, who were seventh in a smaller field in 2020, finished 10th.