Poulin and Servant Embrace the Bright Side

by Jacquelyn Thayer

In the first four years together, ice dancers Andréanne Poulin and Marc-André Servant took a sober-minded view towards their work–an “intense, super-serious” mentality, in their words, that accompanied a 2012 Canadian junior national title and two Junior Grand Prix medals.

But after those initial successes, which also included a decent sixth-place showing at their first Senior Nationals in 2013, setback came in February 2013 in the form of a stress fracture to the metatarsal for Servant, discovered after a fall while walking in the kitchen one evening. The injury to his right foot meant a six- to eight-week layoff from the ice, later extended after X-rays in April indicated a failure to heal.

Servant’s eventual return to the ice in August of 2013 meant swift but late measures to salvage the coming season–“The first day I got back on the ice we did choreography,” he said. But after the team, who train under Shawn Winter and Elise Hamel in Pierrefonds, Quebec, competed the free dance event at Octoberfest, further issues emerged, cutting short their season.

“Because of the time that I spent with a big boot on my right leg, and then not using it, I had a lot of compensation issues from leaning over to the left side,” said Servant. “So then when I started walking I had too much weight on the inside of my foot, so then I was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis.”

Poulin and Servant during the free dance at the 2014 Quebec Summer Championships. Photo by Marc Carle.

Poulin and Servant during the free dance at the 2014 Quebec Summer Championships. Photo by Marc Carle.

And Poulin was forced to use her partner’s downtime to some benefit.

“At first, I didn’t really enjoy the whole process of skating by myself, because when you’re a dancer, you do it because you like skating with someone, so I had to deal with that and I kind of took it really hard,” she said. “But I got over it and I would still show up and skate my two hours, and work my edges and all that stuff. And when I look back now, yes, it was hard and yes it sucked some days to skate by myself and watch the other people skate and go to competitions, but I really did improve my skating skills and just my confidence with my turns and all that, so it was good, too.”

Servant was finally cleared for return in February 2014, resuming training gradually to forestall any further injury.

“Everything happened for a reason for sure,” said Servant. “I ended up meeting all the people that I’m working with now and training with now, and it kind of all came through this unfortunate event.”

“Obviously it sucks that we had the injury, but we have found people that we do need in our circle,” continued Poulin. “We have a fascia therapist now that sees us every time there’s a problem, and we also have a new trainer, and he’s awesome. We’re so much stronger on the ice just by what we’re doing off ice now.”

And July brought a long-anticipated return to full competition with the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, where the couple picked up the highest free dance score among all senior competitors, as well as a second-place finish in their short dance group.

“Lake Placid is a really good place for us because we got our first international medal there [at 2012’s Junior Grand Prix event], so it kind of felt like we were at home almost and just skating for ourselves, really,” said Poulin. “When we showed up, all we were thinking was, ‘You know what, we’re here, we have the opportunity to actually skate and compete,’ so that was a win for us right away.”

The couple quickly followed that debut with the Quebec Summer Championships at their home rink one week later, winning the short dance and placing a close second in the free. Now they’re preparing for their first senior international, October’s Autumn Classic International in Barrie, Ontario.

“I think the goal this season was to get one [international] and I think all we want to do is just put out really good performances and just skate for ourselves, which is really important to us,” said Poulin. “Just put out strong skates and get people to kind of wonder who we are and where we’ve been.”

“Our main plan at the beginning of this season when we started wasn’t so much to obtain certain objectives and goals–our main goal and objective was to skate start to finish of the season, and be injury-free and feel healthy and just have fun and enjoy the entire process,” added Servant. “So I think we’re definitely on the right path in doing that.”

Their enjoyment of process extends to their new programs: a lyrical take on the Paso Doble along with an edgier avant garde approach to classical pieces including “Palladio” and The Four Seasons for their free dance, choreographed by Shae Zukiwsky.

“We try to not stay in the same genre–we don’t want to get stuck with the same music every year,” said Poulin. “Like now with the paso, obviously because we won our Junior Nationals with our free dance that was a paso, we’re kind of back in that style, but we went different for the free dance than Mr. and Mrs. Fox”–referring to the team’s 2012-13 free dance to selections from Fantastic Mr. Fox–“which was like ‘We’re happy’…”

“We like to do different things,” agreed Servant. “It’s always nice–you don’t want to be typecast as, like, ‘You’re a foxtrot team’ or something like that, or a character team or anything like that.”

And unusual selections are nothing new for the couple, who at the 2013 National Championships presented a memorable Yankee Polka short dance to “All These Things That I’ve Done” by rock band The Killers.

“For the Yankee Polka,” said Poulin, “we were kind of just trying to find something, and Marc and I really liked that song and were like ‘You know what, we’re only going to get to compete it once, so we’re going to have fun with this program.’”

“We were kind of like ‘Oh, we have nothing to lose having a little bit of fun,’ so we kind of went out of the box,” said Servant.

“We wanted to make a statement, and not everybody liked it,” added Poulin as Servant laughed. “But we had fun doing it.”

In recovery, the couple have found, too, particular benefit from a central strength.

“As a team, I think just our chemistry on the ice,” said Servant. “So leading from everyday practice and just being able to work together, and knowing how to talk to one another to actually being in the program and working with one another. Like, when I look at her in a certain way, it’s like she knows what I’m…”

“Feeling,” interjected Poulin.

“…And what I’m saying by the look,” he concluded.

“And also, we’re a team where we really skate together and use one another,” continued Poulin. “Like sometimes we go back to the coaches and we’re like ‘Oh, that felt awful,’ and they’re like, ‘Wow, that didn’t really show.’ It’s something that’s to our advantage, obviously, because if something goes wrong, then we can hide it more easily, I guess.”

Poulin and Servant before the short dance at the 2014 Quebec Summer Championships . Photo by Marc Carle.

Poulin and Servant before the short dance at the 2014 Quebec Summer Championships . Photo by Marc Carle.

And with skating skills a key technical asset, the team is aiming to develop as performers.

“Right now we’re just working on being bigger and more extensions everywhere, because we’re small compared to everybody, so we have to look really tall when we’re skating,” said Poulin.

“Mostly the presentation side,” agreed Servant. “Because we know we have the skating skills and what-not and that we’re able to do what we have to do now; it’s just about doing it and performing and having the impact that we originally want for it.”

With the senior Canadian dance field deep even in the wake of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s absence, the couple are hoping to achieve a top five finish at this year’s national championships and inclusion on the national team.

“For sure, our goal is to become members of Team Canada,” said Poulin. “That is our main objective, and also just to have really strong skates and just show to everybody that we love to skate and that we can put out really good, strong programs and we deserve to be there.”

“When we put out a performance and we have fun doing our stuff,” added Servant, “usually all the results follow that. Usually when we put our focus on having fun, everything kind of goes into suit.”

But Virtue and Moir’s presence has also provided an inspirational touchstone for Poulin and Servant, who readily claim the team as their most-admired.

“I started in 2005 doing ice dance, and I think that was kind of the time when they were starting to climb the charts, like 2006 and ’07,” said Servant. “So they were ones that I definitely watched as I’ve grown. And we were in the same flight with them the first year that we were senior, and we were in practice, and I’m just like [Servant looks around in awe]. ‘I have things to do, I have things to do, what am I doing?’”

“We were like ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’” added Poulin. “They’re pretty much perfection on ice. They’re the best ever in ice dance, and it’s for sure someone that you can look up to, and that’s really relatable because they’re Canadian also, which is kind of cool, because we actually skated with them and competed with them. And also the fact that they were injured also and had to kind of fight through that whole process–it’s something that, because we’ve actually had other health issues and Marc had tendonitis one year, we’ve had a lot of obstacles, I guess, and they also have had their own share of it. So it’s like yes, they’re really good, but they’ve also overcome so many things.”

For Poulin and Servant, inclusion on the national team could have further resonance. Though parents provide assistance, with Poulin also living at home, both partners work to help fund their skating, and have sought additional means of bringing attention to the financial toll the sport can take, from training costs to commuting expenses.

“It doesn’t get any cheaper as you get better,” said Poulin.

Poulin works in customer service at an area bakery and does occasional partnering. “I spend enough time at the rink, so I try to just stay away when I can and just clear my head,” she said.

“And I spend all my time at the rink,” said Servant, who coaches and partners outside of training hours. “Since the injury has taught me to be smart and not always have my skates on my feet for seven hours a day–apparently that’s not the best thing for you–I try to spend as much time doing that stuff without skates on my feet, which is very nice, because my students are good with that.”

The two created a GoFundMe site to raise awareness, and have obtained a few sponsors, including an osteopath and chiropractor.

“We decided to start that website just to get people who wanted to help us financially, and even if it’s a $10 donation, it’s going to go to skating, and it’s going to help us,” said Poulin.

“Like that right there is getting your skates sharpened, you know?” added Servant.

“Like for us, since we’re not on the national team, there’s not a lot of funding, so everything is straight from our pockets, so that’s why we’re working to help offset the costs,” he continued. “So I think that was kind of the main reason why we put up the GoFundMe, was to see what could happen. You never know, it never hurts to ask. It was the same thing when we got the sponsors that we have now–we just kind of asked, and we told them our story, and they were like ‘Oh, yeah, we’d love to sponsor you!’”

Poulin and Servant in downtime.

Poulin and Servant in downtime.

“Mansfield [Athletic Club] in the West Island sponsors us,” said Poulin. “It’s a big establishment behind us that believes in us, and just wants us to go further and achieve our dream also. It’s just nice to have support like that, not just from mom and dad or the family and stuff.”

Poulin’s off-ice schedule is supplemented by school. Though currently a part-time student in business in CÉGEP, her future plans are fitting to recent experiences.

“I’m looking to get into osteopath school, so I’m probably going to have to do other classes before I get into a school in Montreal, but that is my goal at the end of the line,” she said.

With living and training expenses a priority, Servant is presently focusing his energies on the work world.

“Coaching is what I’m doing now to offset everything, and then I know school’s always going to be there,” he said. “So worst case, if I need to go to school a little bit later when I have more time or a little freedom there, then I’ll take the opportunity.”

After surviving the past year’s trials, Servant describes the team’s new attitude as “lighthearted.”

“I’m just really excited to be skating again,” he said. “I’m ecstatic about that. I’m happy to be on the ice every day, and sometimes you see teams who are like ‘Oh, a run-through’–but I enjoy it. That’s what I missed. I missed doing things. So I think for me, I’m just really happy to be skating and enjoying doing the programs and performing for people again. Because there’s nothing like that competition feeling–you can practice or do shows or do whatever, but that feeling at competition is really the reason that you do it.”

“And a lot of the times like in training,” continued Poulin, “when we have a bad run-through or bad skating day, when we get off the ice we look back and are like ‘You know what? We had the opportunity to have a bad skating day.’ Which is pretty awesome for us.”

“Just the injury really put everything into perspective and helped us enjoy the process of skating and of creating the programs,” said Servant. “Like Andie said, when something goes wrong or if you’ve had a bad skating day, you’ve had the opportunity to have a bad skating day. You’re not stuck at home or with a cast on your leg, you know? So, perspective.”

And then, he added after a pause: “And happiness!”