Best of 2023: Champions who returned to glory

These champions overcame challenges, disappointments or lulls to find their way back to international podiums. Armed with perseverance and propelled by a passion for their sport, these athletes have not given up in the face of setbacks and have shown that they still belong at the top of the rankings.

Here are a few athletes who have returned to glory in 2023:

Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier – Figure skating

In December 2022, Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier were at the top of their game. They had just been crowned Ice Dance Champions of the season at the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Turin, Italy.

For them, this victory was a sign that they had made the right decision in deciding to continue their competitive careers after their disappointing Olympic campaign at Beijing 2022. With the feeling that they still had things to accomplish, a job to finish in their sport, they rolled up their sleeves and started the 2022-23 season with a bang.

  • Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier embrace low to the ice during their ice dance performance
  • Piper Gilles, center, and Paul Poirier, right, of Canada react to audience members after getting their score for their performance in the ice dance free dance program in the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, north of Tokyo, Saturday, March 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Hiro Komae)

The early months of 2023, however, were difficult to navigate for the ice dancers. Gilles was forced to take a break midway through the season, as she had to undergo surgery to remove her appendix as well as one of her ovaries due to a diagnosis of stage 1 ovarian cancer.

After a three-month break, the duo was back on the podium at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships in March, finishing third. And under the circumstances, that bronze medal was worth gold.

They kicked off the 2023-24 season by winning the two Grand Prix they took part in; Skate Canada International and the Cup of China Grand Prix. At the ISU Grand Prix Final, the duo secured a bronze medal. Gilles and Poirier are now ready to thrill their fans back home at the next World Championships in Montreal in March 2024.

Christa Deguchi – Judo

Failing to qualify for the Olympic Games is tough for any athlete, but to miss out on the big event when you’re consistently among the World’s best in your category is a bitter pill to swallow.

But Christa Deguchi persevered, and the results were soon evident. At the IJF World Judo Championships last May, she was crowned World champion for the second time in her career. Her first title came in 2019, when she became the first Canadian judo athlete to win a World title.

Christa Deguchi smile on the podium with the gold medal.
AP Photo/Hussein Sayed

This year’s results put her in contention for the Olympic qualification place to represent Canada at Paris 2024 in the women’s 57 kg category, a place she will once again have to contend with Jessica Klimkait, who is also permanently among the top five judokas in the World rankings for their weight category.

Maggie Mac Neil – Swimming

Maggie MacNeil was back on the podium in her favourite event, the 100 m butterfly, at the 2023 World Championships, where she won the silver medal. The reason she wasn’t on the podium in 2022 was that she had decided to take part only in relay events, in order to prioritize her well-being. Being World and Olympic champion brought a great deal of pressure and anxiety to the swimmer, and a step back was necessary to preserve her mental health.

  • Maggie Mac Neil poses with seven medals around her neck
  • Maggie Mac Neil holds up her silver medal hung around her neck

At the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games in October, MacNeil made Canadian sporting history by winning five gold medals, the most ever won by a Canadian athlete at a single Pan-American Games. Three of these gold medals were won in individual events: the 100 m butterfly, the 50 m freestyle and the 100 m freestyle. She ended the Games with a total of seven medals.

READ: Magnificent Maggie Mac Neil makes Canadian history at the Pan Am Games

Maggie MacNeil is back on top and ready to shine at Paris 2024.

Mirela Rahneva – Skeleton

Mirela Rahneva has enjoyed a great deal of World Cup success over the years. In 2023, however, the athlete achieved a major first: winning a World Cup medal. She stood on the third step of the podium in the women’s skeleton event at the IBSF 2023 World Championships, winning Canada’s first medal since 2015 at a skeleton World Championship.

Mirela Rahneva waves to the crowd after a race

In 2023, the experienced athlete also claimed her first crystal globe in four years when she finished third overall in the women’s Skeleton World Cup.

Rahneva kicked off the 2023-24 season with a bronze medal at the first World Cup. Her recent successes demonstrate the 35-year-old’s patience and perseverance.

Caeli McKay and Pamela Ware – Diving

These two experienced members of the Canadian diving team reached the podium at the World Aquatics Championships 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan, and for each of them, this performance marked the end of a more difficult period in their careers.

Caeli McKay‘s bronze medal in the women’s 10 m platform event was her first individual medal at a World Championship, having previously excelled on the international stage in the synchronized 10 m with Meaghan Benfeito, who retired after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. McKay, who dove at her first Olympic Games in July 2021 despite a serious ankle injury, finally underwent surgery in October 2022 after struggling for over a year with persistent pain. She only returned to competition a few weeks before the World Championships, at the World Aquatics Diving World Cup in Montreal in early May.

Caeli McKay holds up her bronze medal on the podium at the World Aquatics Championships
Caeli McKay shows off her bronze medal from the 10m platform event at the 2023 World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan (Antoine Saito)

Bronze medallist on women’s 3 m springboard at the 2013 World Championships, Pamela Ware returned to the podium in this competition ten years later, last July, when she won her second career bronze medal at these championships, once again on 3 m springboard. The 30-year-old diver has had to work hard to rebuild her confidence after a botched dive in the semifinals at Tokyo 2020 had psychological consequences that lingered for a long time.  

Ware, who didn’t take part in the World Championships in 2022, made her return to an international podium on home soil when she won silver on 3 m springboard at the Montreal World Cup in May.  

  • Pamela Ware bounces on the 3m springboard as she prepares to dive off
  • Pamela Ware poses with the gold medal alongside American and Mexican competitors

In October, she continued her winning ways, winning two gold medals, in 1 m and 3 m, at the Pan American Games in Santiago 2023, as well as a silver medal in 3 m synchronized with Mia Vallée.

These two divers are on a roll that could well lead them to the podium at Paris 2024.

Katie Vincent – Sprint canoe 

If it’s not always easy to stay in sport, it’s even harder to do so when the teammate with whom you formed one of the best teams in the world retires.

Silver medallist in the women’s C-2 500 m at Tokyo 2020 alongside her long-time partner Laurence Vincent Lapointe, who subsequently retired from sport, Katie Vincent is once again among the world’s elite in the event, this time with her new teammate, Sloan MacKenzie. At the ICF World Championships last August, the two Canadians won the bronze medal and secured Canada an Olympic quota place in the event.

Katie Vincent and Sloan MacKenzie win the gold medal in the women’s C-2 500m at the Santiago 2023 Pan American Games on November 4, 2023 (Carlos Acuña/Santiago2023 vía PHOTOSPORT)

Vincent also took the opportunity to fill up on medals, winning three gold medals in events not on the Olympic program: the women’s C-1 500 m, the women’s C-1 5,000 m and the mixed C-2 500 m with Connor Fitzpatrick.

One thing’s for sure, Katie Vincent has shown she’s in it for the long haul.

Mike Woods – Road cycling

At the age of 36, Mike Woods won his first Tour de France stage, a long-held dream. Last July, he won the ninth stage of the 2023 edition of the Grande Boucle during his fourth Tour de France appearance.

Woods, a professional cyclist on the World Tour since 2016, had previously achieved several noteworthy results, including a bronze medal in the road race at the 2018 UCI World Championships and a fifth-place finish at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. He had also celebrated stage wins at the Vuelta a España, another Grand Tour, in 2018 and 2020.

Mike Woods on his bike.
Canada’s Michael Woods wins the ninth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 182.5 kilometers (113.5 miles) with start in Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat and finish in Puy de Dome, France, Sunday, July 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

For many cyclists, the Tour de France, the oldest and most prestigious of the Grand Tours, has a special meaning, and Mike Woods had the ambition of adding his name to the short list of Canadian stage winners that also includes Steve Bauer and Hugo Houle. He can now say mission accomplished.