The curly hair, the chiseled mustache, the bright smile, and the eyes that glitter with excitement. These trademarks of Canadian figure skater Paul Poirier are usually on display against sheets of white ice — but here they were against a backdrop of the many books and plants of Poirier’s living room when I called him on Zoom to interview him for The Varsity.
You might know Poirier for a plethora of reasons, the most obvious being his three Olympic appearances — but, on top of that, he is a U of T alum and a former athlete for the Varsity Blues. He’s also a trailblazer, as a Canadian figure skater who has publically come out as gay. Poirier has a lot going for him, but in his interview he came across as a regular guy. A regular guy that is insanely good at skating.
Years before his Olympic fame, Poirier started skating at the age of five, upon his parents’ suggestion. “My parents are very sports-oriented people,” Poirier reminisced. “We didn’t take music lessons, we didn’t do anything else, but they really wanted us to play sports.”
Since skating was in his blood, and in light of the fact that the late ’90s of Poirier’s childhood saw the American figure-skating boom, it didn’t take much for Poirier to fall in love with the sport. Before he knew it, he was skating five or six days a week, and he committed himself to the sport when he was nine years old. “It didn’t feel like a big decision at the time. But I think, looking back now… that’s actually a really big decision,” he said.
Much like how he balances his weight on the ice, Poirier has balanced the weights of schoolwork and his professional skating career from a young age. “[Being in school] is a grounding thing for me… it gives me time to think about something that’s not skating,” he said. When he was deciding which university to attend, skating was the first thing that was on Poirier’s mind, so he looked for a school that would mesh well with his sports life. “I was living and training in Toronto and I didn’t want to move away for school… [U of T] gave me the most options for programs that were interesting to me.”
He enjoyed his time at U of T and eventually graduated with a degree in linguistics. The trademark Poirier smile revealed itself when I asked about his decision to choose linguistics as a major. “I was strong at math and science, but I really liked my language classes,” Poirier said, with a spark in his eyes. Linguistics is about dissecting how languages work, he said, but with mathematics involved — the perfect marriage between his strengths and 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… respond, and that’s a really nice feeling,” he said.
Fans, the bright lights, and everything else that comes with figure skating is nothing new to Poirier, who has been participating in the Olympics since he was a teenager. His first was the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, with his then-partner Vanessa Crone. Changing partners from Crone to Piper Gilles was part of the long and difficult journey that he took 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 handle things like stress, fatigue, and setbacks. “No two people skate exactly alike… there’s something that my coaches call your ‘skating thumbprint’… there’s a certain way of moving that every person has, and it’s not the exact same as your partner,” he explained.
Eventually, Poirier and Piper Gilles did learn how to skate as a unified entity. After over 10 years, an ankle injury, and an eighth place finish in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, the duo made it to the bright lights of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
When asked why the road to the Beijing Olympics was such a long and winding one, Poirier sighed and looked off into the distance. “I’ve been doing this a long time… The journey of an athlete is not a straight line in any sort of way. There’s a lot of ups and downs,” he said.
“We always think of all of the routines, all of the programs that we’ve had over the last 11 years skating together,” he added. “Each one has given us skills and more self-knowledge that has aided us in the next program that we choreograph… That process in itself is actually really magical. Everything that you’ve done has brought you to the place that you are.”
The pair’s most recent Olympic trip lasted about two weeks. They were competing in the ice dance team event. They got off to a strong start, placing fourth in their first rhythm dance, third in their free dance, and sixth in their next rhythm dance. During the last team event on February 14, the couple was looking for a high score in the free dance event to propel them to a good spot on the final podium.
As soon as they began to skate to Govardo’s cover of The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road,” the song choice started to make sense to the audience. Years of setbacks, injuries, and intricacies led to this point. The long and winding road would soon be coming to an end.
The couple got off to a great start. Every spin, step, and slide sent waves of emotion through the audience. At the height of the song, as the music boomed in the background, the couple came out of a twizzle set and went into a combination lift. Everything was smooth — until it wasn’t. Suddenly, there was an abrupt pause during the lift, and a leg that didn’t fully extend backward.
When I asked him about what went wrong, Poirier quickly responded, “[It was] just a spacing issue. We were a little bit too far apart. I’m actually really proud of that moment, because we were really able to improvize and make it a much less costly error than it could have been, and that makes me really happy.”
The duo ended up placing seventh overall. When asked about the implications of the mistake and the fact that he didn’t win a medal, Poirier mulled over his answer for a while. He had this duality to him, of two sides battling one another as he tried to reconcile with himself. On one hand, he’s an athlete that is — as he put it — the “meanest to himself,” critiquing every bit of his performance and constantly gunning for a medal.
But the other half of him is completely different. It consists of a newfound maturity and an ability to accept unexpected results — something that a younger 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 the way that living does,” he eventually said. “In the end, you have to make peace with what happens.”
When I asked whether he would be participating in the 2026 Milan Winter Olympics, Poirier stated that he was still undecided. One thing he is sure about for now, though, is that he has come to peace 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 any less of a person?” he asked me.
He never answered his own question. But the way he smiled and shook his head told me that, while Poirier might not win a shiny medal, he has already won the battle that had been going on deep inside of him.