Piper Gilles competes at Skate Canada Int'l after loss of mother to cancer
Canada's Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier goes through their routine during a practice session at Skate Canada International in Laval, Que. on Thursday, October 25, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, October 25, 2018 2:50PM EDT
LAVAL, Que. -- Piper Gilles has a photo of her mom Bonnie taken the day she and Paul Poirier skated their short dance at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Bonnie is dressed in a Canadian team T-shirt and hat, the guest of honour at an Olympic viewing party. She's surrounded by friends in her Colorado Springs home.
Gilles hopes her mom was happy in the photo. She likes to think she was proud.
Bonnie was the only member of the large Gilles family who wasn't in Gangneung Arena to see Piper make her Olympic debut in February. She was in the late stages of cancer, a brain tumour having robbed her of her personality -- and the ability to speak and walk.
"Apparently my mom clapped," Gilles said with a sad smile. "Patti (Gottwein, Gilles' former coach) said she had one tear in her eye. She must have known.
"Those little things, they mean more than anything -- those little tiny moments."
By the Olympics, Bonnie had developed a second tumour. By the time Gilles and Poirier skated to sixth place at the world championships in Milan in March, she had a third.
Bonnie died May 28. She was 63.
Gilles, from Toronto, and Poirier, a 26-year-old from Unionville, Ont., are among the favourites for gold at this week's Skate Canada International in Laval, Que. With the departure of Olympic and world champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir they're expected to challenge Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje for top spot in the country over the next few years heading into the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Gilles said she hopes to honour her mom -- "my hero, my motivator, my biggest critic, my biggest supporter" -- through her skating.
Bonnie put all five of her kids in a variety of sports in Rockford, Ill. (Gilles became a Canadian citizen just in time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, thanks to her grandmother who was from Sarnia, Ont.).
Todd, the eldest at 32, was the first to skate, and by the time Piper and her twin sister Alexe were old enough to walk, they were on skates. Alexe and Todd narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Olympics. Alexe went on to skate professionally including Disney on Ice shows. Gilles also has an older brother Kemper and younger sister Shelby.
Piper and Alexe were just nine when they spent a couple of weeks one summer training in Colorado Springs, a hotbed for Olympic athletes. The family fell in love with the city and its skating possibilities, and moved there.
"My mom wanted to do whatever it took for all of us to be successful," Gilles said.
Bonnie was beloved by figure skating's tight-knit community, a surrogate mom to lonely young skaters living and training far from home. Among the athletes who've lived under the Gilles' Colorado roof are Canadians Patrick Chan, Liam Firus, Larkyn Austman, Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers.
"We've had Japanese, we've had Russians, Finnish, Swedish, French, Italian, German," Gilles said. "It was chaotic. We always had a new sibling every month. Basically every summer, we would have between one and four different people in our house.
"My mom just loved people, and as (Gilles and her four siblings) got older she got more skaters because there were more rooms available."
Gilles first noticed something amiss with her mom in March 2017. She and Poirier had flown to Colorado Springs for altitude training a week before the world championships in Helsinki, and Bonnie wasn't at the airport as scheduled to meet them. Instead she was at home 90 minutes away watching TV.
There were other signs.
Bonnie was an enthusiastic entertainer, but she had no food in her house. (Gilles' dad Jeffrey worked out of town). During a car ride to dinner, her mom vomited. She came upon her mom pacing the kitchen, carefully avoiding the cracks in the tile.
Gilles bundled up her mom and drove her to emergency, where doctors revealed a glioblastoma the size of a tennis ball. One of the most insidious forms of cancer, some 1,000 Canadians -- most between the ages of 45 and 75 -- are diagnosed with a glioblastoma every year. It's the same cancer that killed Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie and U.S. Senator John McCain.
"My mom was a nurse. The moment she figured it out, she became a completely different person, it was like she stopped living, she stopped being herself, because I think it hurt her so much to know how bad it was," Gilles said.
Days later, Gilles and Poirier were in Helsinki where they finished eighth.
The next year was a dizzying mix of training and competing and heartbreaking visits home.
"I'd try to help take care of her and she'd have seizures on me. I'd try to move her and she'd fall. There were a few times I dropped my mom," said the five-foot-three skater. "It was a very tough thing to go through.
"You want to be so strong for her, but the moment you go to another room you bawl your eyes out."
When Bonnie fell ill, the skating community in Colorado Springs stepped up.
They joined forces, delivering a steady stream of meals and visitors to the Gilles home. Among the kind-hearted group: three-time world champion Jill Trenary, Chan's former coach Christy Krall, skater Rachael Flatt's mom Jody, and Gottwein.
Gilles narrowly missed qualifying for the 2014 Olympics with Poirier. When they qualified for Pyeongchang, Bonnie was already gravely ill.
Gilles believes her mom held on until the Games.
Pyeongchang, where Gilles and Poirier would finish eighth, was an emotional roller-coaster. Gilles sought advice on how to focus amidst the heartbreak from Joannie Rochette, whose mom Therese died of a heart attack days before her daughter won bronze at the 2010 Olympics. And Joannie's coach Manon Perron was a team leader in Pyeongchang.
"She was so wonderful, she just knew," Gilles said. "She was the perfect team leader for me."
Gilles spotted her dad Jeffrey in the crowd after the short dance and cried.
"That was the only time I gave myself the opportunity to feel," she said.
Gilles found solace on the ice throughout the past year-and-a-half, and she said her skating has changed with her mom's death. She's more emotional, and that vulnerability shows particularly in their free dance to Govardo's lovely cover of Don McLean's "Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)."
"I feel like now I can connect with Paul a little bit more, there is just this raw vulnerability to my skating that I feel that I didn't have before," Gilles said. "I don't take any day on the ice for granted anymore. I feel like there's a little bit more passion, there's a little bit more fire . . . I feel like every day until the next Olympics I can't take for granted, I have to keep finding a better version of myself."
Away from skating, Gilles is studying wine at George Brown College in Toronto. Wine reminds her of her mom, because wine brings people together. She'd love to make and sell a wine to raise money for cancer research. She also plans to a host a "Skate for the Cure" show next fall in Toronto.
Gilles texted her late mom recently. She told her about their new long program. She told her how much she'd love it. She let her know she was doing OK, but that she missed her.
"She was my rock," Gilles said. "I feel like now she's always with me."