Piper Gilles: How the Olympic Champion Turned Adversity Into Advocacy


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In the high-pressure world of competitive figure skating, Canadian Olympian Piper Gilles has carved out a name for herself not only through her artistry and athleticism but also through her resilience and advocacy. 


Beyond the rink, Gilles is a vocal advocate for women’s health, turning her personal battle into a mission to inspire and educate. While being an elite athlete comes with its own share of personal sacrifice and struggle, it was her diagnosis with Stage 1 ovarian cancer in the spring of 2023 that tested the resilience and fortitude that she had built up for herself throughout the course of her career. 


Today, with every glide and jump, Gilles conveys perseverance, urging others to prioritize their health and embrace their authentic selves.


In her GLORY Sports digital cover story, the two-time Canadian Olympian and three-time World Figure Skating Championship Medalist discusses her artistry through sport, advocacy, and celebrating her accomplishments in life. 

GLORY magazine cover of Piper Gilles wearing a blue blazer sitting in a chair with jeans.
Piper Gilles for GLORY Sports

Ice dancing is known for its artistic expression and storytelling. How do you choose the themes or narratives for your routines? What messages do you like to convey through your performances?


Piper Gilles: It’s changed over time. Paul [Poirier] and I have been together for such a long time that we go through phases. We used to plan in four-year periods, aligning with the Olympic cycles. A lot of what we do is a collaborative process. For example, from July to August, we send each other different types of music to see what speaks to us. We gravitate towards storytelling programs, focusing on how two individuals coexist together. This year, we’re telling a story from Wuthering Heights, where we explore the highs and lows of love.


When you start with a blank canvas, what does that process look like?


Piper Gilles: It’s different every time. Sometimes our coach has an idea for the next year and won’t tell us until right before Worlds. Other times, we have no ideas, and one of us might dream up something. We’ve branded ourselves as the “what are they going to do next” team because we’re always trying new and unexpected things. We call ourselves the cliff jumpers because each new program feels like jumping off a cliff, hoping the judges and audience will love it as much as we do.


Where do you find the balance between your identity as an athlete and an artist? How do these two aspects come together?


Piper Gilles: It’s difficult. Figure skating naturally combines athleticism and artistry. We train in various dance styles like ballet, ballroom, modern dance, and hip hop, alongside gym training and pilates. Some athletes focus solely on being strong, but they might lose artistic points. The key is staying curious and open-minded, always looking for ways to improve both athletically and artistically.


Your sport has a significant relationship with fashion. How does your personal style influence your on-ice persona?


Piper Gilles: Fashion has always been important to me. My mom and I used to bond over designing my outfits. Ice dance is very aesthetic, and your look can influence your scores. Fashion is a form of self-expression, giving you confidence. Over the years, Paul and I have had a lot of input into our costumes, which helps us portray our characters and stories on the ice.


You’ve mentioned that fashion in skating can be political. Can you explain what you mean by that?


Piper Gilles: In skating, how you present yourself aesthetically can affect your scores. Judges are always watching, even during practice, so you have to be on point all the time. It’s unfortunate because the focus should be on the performance, but appearance can influence perceptions and scores.


How long did it take for you to find your groove with Paul and understand each other’s needs?


Piper Gilles: It took around three to four years. The first few years are like a honeymoon phase. Over time, you learn how to communicate under stress and understand each other’s needs. It’s like any relationship—you have to listen, not get offended, and grow together. By year three or four, we were fully invested and knew how to work well together. We know each other so well that we can order each other’s meals at a restaurant. On the ice, we communicate with noises and gestures, almost like our own language. It’s a special bond that even my family might not fully understand.

closeup shot of Piper Gilles laughing and a hand reaching out to a camera wearing a blue blazer and jeans.

How did your ovarian cancer diagnosis impact your mindset and approach to your career and life in general?


Piper Gilles: It changed everything. During a competitive season, I wasn’t feeling well and discovered it was more serious than just a cyst. It made me grateful for every moment. My perspective shifted to appreciating every opportunity, whether on the ice or with friends. Sharing my journey publicly was freeing and brought support from others who had similar experiences. It reinforced the importance of living fully and using my voice to help others.


How do you protect your sense of self-worth in a sport so influenced by others’ opinions?


Piper Gilles: It’s about relying on your core people and finding the right support, like a therapist. Dealing with mental health issues, such as eating disorders, is common in our sport. It’s crucial to open up and ask for help. Staying off social media when you’re vulnerable also helps. Over time, you learn to filter feedback and focus on your well-being.


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How do you balance having a relationship with fans on social media while maintaining boundaries


Piper Gilles: I show parts of myself I’m comfortable with, usually the happier, playful side. When I’m going through tough times, I tend to stop posting. However, social media is evolving, with more people sharing their vulnerabilities. When I spoke about my ovarian cancer, it was freeing and allowed others to connect with me. It’s about finding a balance between openness and protecting your mental health.


How long did it take for you to realize your own identity as an athlete and artist?


Piper Gilles: It took a long time to fully trust who I am as an artist and athlete. The sport is very watched, and it’s easy to doubt your creations. About six or seven years ago, when my mom was going through brain cancer, I grew up fast and realized the importance of speaking my truth. Life’s challenges made me more confident and appreciative of my identity and presence in the sport.

Piper Gilles sitting in a chair wearing a denim jacket and jeans.

How are you using your platform to continue building on important conversations, or do you feel like this is a good space for you right now in terms of maintaining your boundaries and focusing on your priorities?


Piper Gilles: I’d love to do more. I’ve done work with Ovarian Cancer Canada and their walk,  back in September. Skating is my priority, but I want to find time to advocate more for getting checked at a young age. It’s important to normalize conversations about women’s health, like periods. I wish someone had talked to me about these things sooner. It’s a juggling act being an athlete, but advocating for health is something I want to do more in the future. I’ve had interesting conversations with women who got checked after hearing my story. Seeing that change, even in a small way, is really rewarding.


Shifting gears, the Olympics are a pinnacle for many athletes. How do you mentally prepare for such high-intensity moments that come around every four years?


Piper Gilles: There’s no set routine; it’s about building confidence between Paul and me through training, rest, off-ice work, and physio. At our first Olympics, we switched programs a month and a half before the Games, which was crazy. We were nervous, but I grabbed Paul’s hands and said, “We need to chill. We’re ready for this.” That communication helped us relax and enjoy our performance.


Your experiences at different Olympics seem varied. What have you learned from those experiences to help you prepare mentally and physically for the future?


Piper Gilles: It’s about owning who we are and not apologizing for our decisions. We need to trust our creative vision and stay in our bubble, focusing on our strengths. At the next Olympics, we’d be more confident and less influenced by outside voices.


Many top professionals experience imposter syndrome. Has that affected you in your career?


Piper Gilles: Definitely. After my cancer diagnosis and successful season, I questioned if I could be successful without being sick. Over time, I realized it was my hard work and belief in myself that made me successful. It’s easy to doubt, but being grateful for the experience helps overcome imposter syndrome.


How do you celebrate your accomplishments with this mindset?


Piper Gilles: Honestly, we don’t celebrate much. We’re always focused on the next competition. We usually have a family dinner with our coaches to celebrate, but Paul and I quickly move on to improving. It’s something we need to get better at—appreciating our achievements.


What is your personal mission?


Piper Gilles: My mission is to encourage young athletes and children to be themselves. Your unique self is your superpower. Don’t change because of social media or others’ opinions. Stay true to who you are, and your path will find you.


What does glory mean to you?


Piper Gilles: Glory is personal strength and fulfillment. It’s not just about being on top of the podium; it’s about doing what you love and finding joy in it.