|Paul Poirier and Vanessa Crone of Canada skate their way to a first-place finish in the ice dance final in Kingston on Sunday. (QMI Agency/Michael Lea)
KINGSTON -- Even without Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canadian ice dancing looks to be in pretty good shape.
With the 2010 Olympic gold medallists sidelined after Virtue underwent a second surgery to try to correct a leg problem in early October, two younger Canadian duos delivered strong free dances on Sunday at Skate Canada International.
Vanessa Crone of Newmarket and Paul Poirier of Unionville won their first career Grand Prix gold medals, while graduating juniors Alexandra Paul of Midhurst, Ont., and Mitchell Islam of Barrie were second to their fellow Canadians in the free dance and fourth overall.
“Vanessa and I are both really proud of how we did at this program,” Poirier said. “It took a very long time to come together. (Choreographer and British ice dance legend Christopher Dean) made it very difficult for us and it was a challenge we were willing to accept. To come together in the last few weeks and be able to lay it down here I think was a really positive experience for us.”
Skating to a tune — Eleanor Rigby — originally performed by The Beatles, Crone and Poirier won the free dance with 91.47 points to overtake short program winners Sinead Kerr and John Kerr, siblings from Great Britain. Americans Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein finished third.
Crone and Poirier finished an impressive seventh at the world championships last season after a disappointing 14th-place result at the Vancouver Olympics.
“At the Olympics, we had a little downfall and we got to worlds, we (saw) a huge improvement in ourselves and our skating,” Crone said. “I think we have just kind of risen to the challenge again at this competition and we're right where we want to be.”
Carol Lane, the coach of the duo, knows Dean and contacted him when the dancers came up with the idea of skating to a Beatles jingle.
Dean came to the team's training rink in Scarborough for a week to put the program together. Wearing straight-forward red (Crone) and royal blue/purplish (Poirier) costumes to match the Union Jack, Crone and Poirier notched their third senior Grand Prix medal.
“As for the Grand Prix title, I think we're both really excited and it's something we can look to keep building on,” said Poirier, who goes to Skate America in Portland with Crone from Nov. 12-14.
Paul and Islam, meanwhile, opened plenty of eyes with their effort, finishing second in the free skate after coming sixth in the short program in their senior Grand Prix debut. They received a prolonged standing ovation on Sunday.
“It's surreal right now,” Islam said. “Coming to our first Grand Prix event and doing that out there, making a splash in front of our hometown crowd, it doesn't get any better than that for us.”
The Barrie-based team won silver at the world junior championships last season in The Netherlands. Paul and Islam opted to make the jump to senior this season, despite having a season of junior eligibility remaining.
Though they have skated at the same training rink for years, they are only in their second full season together. Already, they have drawn comparisons to Virtue and Moir.
“It's not deliberate. We've been told that before,” Paul said when asked about similarities. “We love watching them skate.”
Added Islam: “We love Tessa and Scott, but we're our own team. We both looked up to them a lot as young athletes, but we definitely want to distinguish ourselves as a new team in Canada and senior.”
Islam was a longtime partner of Joanna Lenko, but she had to quit the sport in 2007 because of heart problems.
“It was tough for me,” said Islam, who also reached triple-A hockey as a defenceman before quitting that sport after his bantam year.
“I questioned whether I wanted to keep going (in figure skating). I trained almost a year on my own and then found Alex.”
Paul said chemistry wasn't a problem because they “basically grew up together,” skating on the same ice and training under the same coaches.
Paul said the team's top goal this season is to qualify for the world championships in Japan (three Canadian teams will go).
They have another Grand Prix assignment at the Cup of Russia from Nov. 19-21.