Joannie Rochette: figure skating's moment beyond medals

On a night of brilliant figure skating, the courage of Joannie Rochette to skate – flawlessly – two days after her mother unexpectedly passed away was a testament to her spirit and that of her country.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Joannie Rochette (left) and her coach, Manon Perron, wait for Rochette's scores after the short program of the women's figure skating competition in Vancouver, British Columbia, Tuesday.

In the end, it might not matter that Canada didn’t own the podium. It has captured the heart. When Joannie Rochette finished her routine in the women’s figure skating short program Tuesday night, there was no disappointment at being only in bronze medal position or discussion of how she would make up 7.14 points on leader Kim Yu-na.

Instead, there were tears, there was pride, and there was palpable sense among each person in the building that they had been witness to something that will linger in the memory for a lifetime, and medals had no part in it.

Sunday morning, Rochette’s mother, Thérèse, passed away unexpectedly here in Vancouver, where she had come to watch her daughter skate. Tuesday night, Rochette skated as close to perfect as she possibly could.

(The Monitor spoke with Mrs. Rochette in January. Read article).

The judges put a value on its skating merits, and even by that measure, it was the best short program of her season. In this case, however, the numbers were a poor indication of the enormity of the performance.

Canadian spirit

For a world that came to Canada wondering what this nation was beyond hockey and a famous neighbor, Rochette’s performance was more revealing than a dozen opening ceremonies. For Canada, the Olympics have not always gone according to script, but they have revealed the unshakable spirit of the nation in both disappointment and in victory – but never more so than Tuesday night.

“I don’t know how she did it,” said Sue Hayman-Abello, a native of London, Ontario, here in Vancouver to see the Olympics.

Rochette might not have known, either. She showed no open sign of emotion during her warm-up skate or even in the performance itself. Upon finishing, however, Rochette nearly dissolved at center ice, slumped over, her face buried in her hands as she fought to maintain control.

Asked how she is doing considering the circumstances, she said: “words cannot describe.”

Even for Canadians, who have spared no ovation for any countryman, medalist or not, the support of the Pacific Coliseum Tuesday night was beyond the ordinary.

“I would have cheered loudly anyway, but we stood and tried to send as much emotion as we could onto the ice,” said Hayman-Abello.

Managing the emotion

More emotion, however, is perhaps not what Rochette needs at this moment.

“It was very nice to have the warm welcome,” she said afterward. “It was hard to handle, but I appreciate the support.”

She is competing because that is what Thérèse would have wanted, friends and family say. But that means focusing on the job at hand despite every urge to the contrary.

“The only thing I can think of is to put emotion to the side,” says Camie Doyle, a former competitor at the national level in women’s figure skating and now a coach. “You’d have to allow yourself to grieve after the Olympics.”

If you let those thoughts in now, she adds, “you run the risk of getting very emotional as the program goes on.”

From a purely Olympic perspective, there is much to fight for.

While perhaps only second-placed Mao Asada can catch Kim for the gold Thursday night, Rochette has a commanding 6.6-point bronze medal lead and is well placed to move up if Asada falters.

“It was amazing that she had the courage to perform,” said Michael Hayman, Sue’s brother. “When you consider it’s already hard enough just with the pressure of the Olympics, she did a brilliant performance.”

For Rochette, though, it is all that she can do just to fight for what was to be the greatest sporting achievement of a life spent working toward this moment.

“It was hard to be precise,” she said. “Ten years from now, I’d like to come back and do this again."


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