If there is one lesson that ice dancers Élisabeth Paradis and François-Xavier Ouellette have learned in the past few months, it is that every day that they step on the ice, they must push themselves to be better, no matter what.

No matter the disappointments. No matter the heady competition out there beyond the walls of their training centre. No matter the chances they missed. No matter that before this year, nobody had really heard of them. In the end, it hasn’t mattered at all.

Now their performances – and their story – are bringing people to tears. Their free dance? They skate to Ginette Reno’s “Un peu plus haut,” an uplifting song that coach/choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil heard at the 2010 Olympics. Right then, she knew it would make a great free dance. But it’s taken one or two years for Paradis and Ouellette to be able to handle this music. “This year, we thought we were good enough,” Paradis said.

When they performed it at Skate Canada International in Kelowna, B.C., people stood, having witnessed a brush of pink and grey moving joyfully from one pretty position to the next. The 2010 Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were watching, too, on the sidelines. “Oh my god,” Virtue said. “It was an incredible program. That must have been my favourite of the night. It really made an impact.”

“’Un peu plus haut’ is really almost like our story,” Paradis said. “The couple is aiming for more and trying to reach higher and higher.”

Virtue and Moir had already seen Paradis and Ouellette at the national training camp in September. “We really liked them at the camp, too,” Moir said.

The fact that they were even at the camp was a miracle, a break. They weren’t actually on the national team, having finished eighth at the previous Canadian championship and seventh the year before that. Yet after finishing fifth at Cup of Nice a year ago, with good scores, Skate Canada invited them to the camp.

They were beaming, just to be there, at the camp. Cup of Nice had been their first international competition, because they never had any Junior Grand Prix assignments. They were always on the cusp. “We were in junior two years and they were some really strong years, with all the novice teams from B.C. moving up to juniors, and so we didn’t get our chance,” Paradis said. They are now both 22 years old. 

They were busily training at the rink, when their friends and training mates, Sara Hurtado and Adrian Diaz (of Spain) called them to tell them that they had been given the Skate Canada International, same as them. They thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t. “We were really grateful to Skate Canada to give us that chance, like they trust that we are going to do a good job,” Paradis said.  They had been hoping to get a Grand Prix next season.

Only about a week and a half before Skate America, they found out they were going to Chicago, too, after the Reeds had pulled out with an injury. They had just returned from Nebelhorn Trophy where they had been fifth. “Good thing we didn’t take any time off,” Paradis said.

Eighth after the short dance, with nerves making their legs feel like spaghetti, Paradis and Ouellette surprised everybody by finishing fourth in the free skate and fourth overall at their first Grand Prix.

“Skate America was our first experience at a grand prix,” Ouellette said. “It was new and exciting. We had a lot of fun there, just doing the practices, just enjoying the moment. I think both of us were a little bit nervous before the short dance, so we were very happy that we stayed on our feet. But we were well prepared.”

They were more relaxed in the free. They knew what level they would face, because they train with strong teams in Quebec.

The national championships prepared them for the experience at Skate Canada International. “It was so nice just to get on the warm-up and everybody was cheering, whoa!” Paradis said. “And Canadian flags were everywhere. It’s really cool. “

Paradis and Ouellette began to skate together four years ago, when both previous partners decided to quit. Ouellette had been working with former ice dancer Pascal Denis, who took the young skater with him when he moved to work at Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon’s school in Montreal. Paradis used to train in Quebec City, so she had to make a move to Montreal to skate with Ouellette.

“It was a really easy decision for me, because Xavier was the best skater I could think of in the province of Quebec,” Paradis said. They were among the first students at Dubreuil and Lauzon’s school, which has steadily filled up with a cast of strong international skaters. “We are a big family and it’s really fun,” Ouellette said. 

“She teaches us to become real champions,” Paradis said, speaking of Dubreuil. “Because that’s what they were, a lot more than just on the ice.”

Buoyed by confidence, their performances of the free dance are markedly different between Nebelhorn Trophy and Skate Canada International. In Kelowna, they painted a beautiful tableau. Their goal is to learn from every competition, to improve every day. That mindset has brought them this far.

“One year from now was our first international,” Paradis said. “Now we are doing our second grand prix. It was not so easy when we were junior, getting nothing. We came from the bottom but we kept working hard. We are not substitutes anymore.”