Gilles and Donohue have sights set high

Couple favored to make ISU Junior Grand Prix Final

Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue hope to improve on their fourth-place finish at the JGP Hungary as they head to Dresden.
Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue hope to improve on their fourth-place finish at the JGP Hungary as they head to Dresden. (Paul Harvath)


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By J. Barry Mittan, special to
(08/19/2009) - For ice dancers Piper Gilles and Zach Donohue, success was almost immediate. The couple started dancing together in June 2008 after both had split with previous partners.

Less than three months later, they won the original and free dance competitions for their group at the 2008 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships and were awarded an ISU Junior Grand Prix (JGP) assignment in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, their first international competition. They won the event, an experience Gilles categorized as her biggest life-defining moment to date.

The duo followed up with a silver medal at the ISU Junior Grand Prix (JGP) in Cape Town, South Africa. That qualified them for the Junior Grand Prix Final, but Gilles injured her groin in training and they had to withdraw.

"It was probably due to my last growth spurt," Gilles said. "I was off the ice almost two months. Whenever I tried to go back, it would flare up. I tried to skate the week before the Final, but it was like, no way."

The couple was back on the ice for the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where they won the bronze medal in junior dance.

"That was great for what we'd been through," Gilles said. "We only had a month to train, and I wasn't doing much, just a quick run-through of the original or free in the morning and a compulsory dance run-through in the afternoon if I felt OK."

The couple won the free dance and the original dance in their group this season at the 2009 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships in August.

They will open the ISU Junior Grand Prix season in Budapest, Hungary at the end of August and then compete again in Dresden, Germany in October.

They will continue competing in junior dance this season at 2009 U.S. nationals as well and hope to medal at all their competitions.

"Making it to junior worlds and winning a medal there is our big goal for this year," Gilles said.

Only 17 and 18 respectively, the dancers plan to compete through the 2014 Olympics for sure and possibly longer.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to medal at worlds by 2014," Gilles added.

Donohue only started skating when he was eleven.

"I played a little pond hockey before that," he recalled. "Then I went to my first public session with my cousin, and he told my Mom I ought to take lessons."

"I competed in singles up to junior," he continued. "I had my jumps up to a triple flip, but I got injured and had to quit. I got up to sectionals at novice, but it was becoming all about the jumps, and I liked skating more than jumping."

He started ice dancing when he was 14, competing first with Sara Bailey.

"Her coach came and asked me to try dance with her," Donohue noted. "We were second in intermediates at Sectionals."

He then skated with Kaylyn Patitucci, placing fifth at sectionals in novice, and later with Lili LaMar, finishing fifth at Sectionals in juniors.

Gilles started skating with her twin sister, Alexe, when she was less than three because her brother, Todd, a senior international ice dance competitor, was skating. Although Piper followed Todd into ice dancing, Alexe took a different path and won the U.S. junior ladies title in 2008 before moving up to seniors.

Piper formerly competed with Tim McKernan, winning the silver medal at U.S. Nationals in juniors in 2008, but the couple split up afterwards.

"We just outgrew each other," Gilles stated.

"When we heard that Zach was looking for a partner, my coach called his coach, Mathew Gates, and set up a tryout on Mother's Day weekend," Gilles said.

"We tried out for three days," Donohue added. "After that, I went home, packed up, and that was that."

Patti Gottwein leads the couple's coaching team, which also includes Erik Schulz, Ryan Jahnke, Christopher Dean and Irina Rodnina. Jahnke works with the skaters on footwork and edges, while Schulz and Rodnina help with the lifts and spins. In addition to developing lifts and other moves for the free dance, Dean also helps the couple with their compulsory dances.

"Sometimes we come up with lifts, and sometimes it's the coaches," Donohue noted. "The first lift we do was originally Jane and Todd's, but we added a different entry to it. When Chris does a program, the lifts are usually all his."

The dancers usually train on ice for almost four hours a day, five days a week with an hour and a half on ice on Saturdays. Their off-ice regimen adds another two hours a day to their training schedule.

"Last year, we had to work just keeping up with each other," Donohue said. "Our programs just showed our individual strengths. This summer, we're trying to connect more with each other."

"We have a good look, and our heights match, and we skate with a lot of strength," Gilles continued. "Eventually, we'll be able to show a strong connection like the other top teams."

Christopher Dean choreographed their flamenco original dance.

"We're using Madonna's "Spanish Lullaby" and a compilation of other things Chris pulled out of his hat," Donohue said.

"We originally started with a South American piece," Gilles noted. "We were almost through with it when Jenny Mast came to monitor it and told us she didn't like it. So we switched with Jane and Todd to use the flamenco program they were using, and they're using the one we had."

Tom Dickson choreographed their free dance to "The Man Who Knew Too Much" by City of Prague Philharmonic and "Vertigo Suite" and "North by Northwest Overture" by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"Tom had a picture of the Alfred Hitchcock movies with a tall blonde and thought it would work for us." Gilles stated. "We've watched all the movies except we haven't finished Vertigo yet."

Dean choreographed their exhibition program to "Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps".

Donohue, who was home schooled, has finished high school but not started college. "I'm taking a couple of semesters off to concentrate on skating," he said. "I plan to study physical education and massage therapy because I want to be a skating coach and choreographer."

Gilles is a senior at Cheyenne Mountain High School and took additional courses in the summer to get ahead before skating season. She plans to attend college in the future.

"I was interested in doing something artistic, but now I'm kind of sliding towards the medical field," Gilles said, "probably because of my parents."

Her father is a doctor, and her mother is a nurse.

Both skaters split their free time between artistic and athletic activities. Donohue enjoys playing soccer, snowboarding, water boarding and camping, while Gilles likes skiing on both water and snow.

Donohue won't use two skis, and Gilles won't use a single board. "I do not like skis," Donohue said.

"The first time I went skiing I saw three people carried off on sleds from being injured while snowboarding, and I need my legs for skating," Gilles said. "My Dad didn't want me to use a board."

Gilles' artistic endeavors include making jewelry and doing improvisational comedy, while Donohue writes poetry and songs.

"I used to write more poetry when I was younger," Donohue said, "not so much now. But I write songs. Depending on my mood, they can be romantic love songs or hard rock. I sing them in the shower, but nobody's going to be skating to them."

Donohue also plays the guitar, bass and drums. "I used to jam with Todd and his friends now an then," he noted.

"I have a guitar and tried to learn this summer but now it's collecting dust," Gilles said. "I'll learn eventually."

He listens to rock, Russian techno and Italian music while she prefers pop.

Both of the dancers volunteer in their free time, with Gilles helping at the Broadmoor Skating Club and Donohue supporting Compassion International.