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Figure skating's Grand Prix Final in Osaka postponed due to Omicron variant

Piper Gilles picked up her passport from the Japanese Consulate on Tuesday, but the visa for travel to Osaka had been stamped with a huge, red "VOID.

Piper Gilles picked up her passport from the Japanese Consulate on Tuesday, but the visa for travel to Osaka had been stamped with a huge, red "VOID." 

Gilles and partner Paul Poirier had heard rumblings that the ISU Grand Prix Final next week might be cancelled.

"But that was the big wake-up call, like this isn't happening," Gilles said.

The Omicron COVID-19 variant has claimed another international sporting event. The International Skating Union announced Wednesday that figure skating's Grand Prix Final in Osaka was postponed because of travel restrictions amid the new variant.

Cancellations have become all too familiar for Canadian skaters. The world championship in March of 2020 in Montreal was one of the first dominoes to fall as the global pandemic shut down sports around the world.

"Of course, this is a situation that's not in our control," Poirier said. "And in one way, I feel like this has happened enough times throughout the pandemic that I should be used to it by now. But it doesn't actually get easier to deal with a cancelled event on an emotional level." 

Gilles, from Toronto, and Poirier, from Unionville, Ont., hope to climb the medal podium at the Beijing Olympics, after winning ice dance bronze at the world championships last spring in Stockholm. They won a gold and silver on the Grand Prix circuit this season to clinch their berth in the Final, which sees the top six skaters or duos in each figure skating discipline compete.

They said they can only look for the silver lining in this cancellation.

"This is an opportunity," Poirier said. "There's definitely some changes to the programs that we didn’t have time throughout the Grand Prix circuit to really address. Now we have a head start. And we're giving all of ourselves to this process, trying to win an Olympic medal, so this just gives us time to rest and recover and take care of ourselves a little bit more. 

"I think the only thing any of us can do is to kind of take this hand that we've been given and try to turn it to our advantage. And that's what we're constantly doing as athletes anyway."

Apart from the world championships, last season's figure skating calendar was virtually erased by COVID-19. Both Skate Canada International and the Canadian championships were cancelled. The Skate Canada Challenge was a virtual event that saw skaters videotape their programs in their virtually empty home rinks and submit them for broadcast and judging. 

The only competition between now and the Beijing Olympics is the Canadian championships in January in Ottawa. 

"I think we'll be able to kind of rest and make sure that we're healthy going into the national championships and then making sure our programs are fully ready and where they need to be for the Olympics," Gilles said. "So, it's maybe a blessing in disguise, we don't know, but we just have to choose to find a positive in what could be a negative situation. We have to try to look at it as like, 'Okay, well, we can gain some time and experience on the programs by not doing this event.' 

"So, mentally we have to look on the positive."

Feedback from international judges is crucial to figure skaters, particularly in the final weeks of finetuning before an Olympics, so Gilles said they'll probably bring in some judges to training sessions. 

The International Skating Union said in Wednesday's statement that, considering the complicated epidemic situation involving travel restrictions, quarantine requirements, safety concerns and logistical challenges, the organization of the event was extremely challenging. 

"The Japan Skating Federation and the local organizing committee tried their best to find solutions but ultimately concluded that, regrettably, they are unable to organize and hold the event as planned," the statement said.

Canadian ice dancers Natalie D’Alessandro and Bruce Waddell, and Wesley Chiu (men's singles) had qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final, while Canadians Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen were alternates in senior ice dance.

Skate Canada said it "understands and is grateful that the health and safety of all participants remains a top priority."

"Although this news is disappointing, it in no way detracts from the outstanding performances of the Canadian athletes who qualified for the Grand Prix Final," Skate Canada's statement said. "Skate Canada congratulates and recognizes these athletes and their coaches for the outstanding performances in the 2021-2022 Junior and Senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating series." 

The ISU said it will evaluate the possibility of holding the Grand Prix Final at the end of the season.

Poirier said that he and Gilles have been forced to adapt throughout their partnership. Gilles, who's from Rockford, Ill., had just received her citizenship to compete for Canada in time for the 2014 Sochi Games, but they narrowly missed clinching a spot. At the Pyeongchang Games, Gilles' mom Bonnie was in the late stages of brain cancer.  

They also changed their music for their free dance two months before those Games.

"Our career, in retrospect, has been filled with curveballs, not necessarily the same logistical ones that come with a global pandemic," Poirier said. "As athletes, we're constantly responding to changing situations and adapting. And it takes up an entire career to really learn how to handle that and to turn those, I don't want to say obstacles, but to turn those sudden changes into positives. 

"That's really where you see the experience of the top competitors in the world, just knowing how to handle those situations and using them as opportunities. And this is really a place where our experience over the years will really help us."

Gilles and Poirier had been scheduled to fly to Osaka on Sunday for the Dec. 9-12 Final. They were packed and ready to go.

"I never even put my suitcase away after France (the Grand Prix stop Nov. 19-21 in Grenoble). I can finally move it out of my living room," Poirier said with a laugh.

Earlier this week, the Winter Universiade in Lucerne, Switzerland was cancelled, as was the junior women's field hockey World Cup in South Africa. Canada's junior team is still in Potchefstroom, awaiting flights home. 

The Grand Prix Final scheduled for Beijing last season was also cancelled due to COVID-19. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2021

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press