Buoyed by love, Joannie Rochette skated to Olympic bronze for her mother

Joannie Rochette, who stuck to her decision to compete, felt as though her mother was present as she skated to Olympic bronze, said Rochette's boyfriend, ice dancer Guillaume Gfeller. Rochette's mother passed on suddenly this week.

Mark Baker/AP
Canada's Joannie Rochette skated to an Olympic bronze medal in the women's figure skating finals. She said she was buoyed by the outpouring of support from neighbors and strangers alike.

The record books will say figure skater Joannie Rochette won a bronze medal at the Vancouver Olympics. But that is just the outward symbol of a more poignant victory, which she shared with thousands of roaring fans in the Pacific Coliseum on Thursday night – and many more around the globe.

Buoyed by thousands of letters from her small town in Quebec, from teammates, from strangers on Twitter, Rochette surmounted the sudden passing of her mother on Sunday to skate a heartfelt free skate and finish third. And then, instead of withdrawing to the privacy of her family, she spoke publicly – with poise and strength – for the first time since the weekend.

“I want to thank everyone who supported me – everyone around the whole world. I felt so much love in so little time. All of your comments, all of your letters, really helped me get on the ice and skate here for myself, my country, and my mom,” said Rochette, when asked to comment on her performance at a press conference afterward. “I realized how much people were inspired by me.”

Indeed. The throngs that rose to their feet to applaud her gutsy performance – a few wobbles, but more than enough heart to make up for them – walked out wide-eyed with amazement.

“She won gold for us – not just for Canada but for the whole world. She shared with us what courage is,” said Janis D’andrea from Coquitlam, British Columbia. “She really felt our love strong…. And even though her mother is gone, she’s still with her.”

Rochette’s boyfriend, ice dancer Guillaume Gfeller, agreed.

“She did feel that her mom somehow was there looking at her,” said Gfeller in an interview after the performance, adding that often Mrs. Rochette would be too nervous to watch her daughter perform and would hide out in the washroom while she skated. “She was there because she made [Joannie] who she is.”

Nadine Reedman of Vancouver, who – having lost her own mother – was amazed at Rochette’s poise.

“Even though it’s not a gold, I know all of Canada is so proud of her. It was unbelievable – the most brilliant, courageous performance I’ve seen in my life,” said Reedman. “What a blessing that she was able to complete this journey with a medal – it’s such a tribute to her mom and dad and to her.”

'She always wanted the best for me'

It was a journey that – since Sunday, at least – has taken place mostly out of the public eye. With the notable exception of her emotional short program Tuesday night, Rochette has asked for – and been given – the space to sort through the passing of the person she calls “my biggest fan and my best friend.”

But the story emerged Thursday as family members, friends, and Rochette herself offered a glimpse at how she managed to skate to a personal best performance during the most trying time of her life.

When Rochette first received news on Sunday that her mom had passed on, she immediately declared she would skate anyway. But those who were with her during the week say she wavered, particularly before the short program on Tuesday – the first major competition she ever attended without her mom watching.

“It was difficult for her to stand by this decision,” said Gfeller, who spent much of the week with her in the athletes’ village. “When she would get sad, she’d say, ‘How could I skate?' But it was only moments. Overall, she wanted to be skating.”

Rochette herself spoke at some length about the profound influence her mother had had on her character and her development as Canada’s most successful skater in two decades.

“She always wanted the best for me,” said Rochette, whose whole family was inspired by the Olympic ideal of reaching for and achieving high goals, especially as exemplified by gold medalist Oksana Baiul in 1994. She was my biggest fan, but also the most critical. Tonight she would have said, ‘But what about your triple flip, it was so good in practice?’”

Still, her mother would have been proud.

“I’m sure that if she had seen my triple Lutz, she would have been proud,” said Rochette, who said she felt her mother’s support when her legs were trembling near the end of her program. “I’m sure my mom was there, helping me with my last jump.”

'Magnificent' – and tenacious

Even had she decided not to skate, Canada would have supported her.

“Her not skating would have been fine,” said Teri Fisher, director of sales for Cold Fx, one of Rochette’s sponsors. “She’s just an inspiration; what a heart of gold. She’s a true hero.”

She held her poise as she had to file past the gaggles of journalists thrusting audio recorders and questions in her face. At one point, when the emotion of talking about her mother became too much, her coach and press attaché pulled her away and told the reporters she was finished.

But she stomped her foot in protest, making her turquoise skirt shiver, and shook her head. Her determination won out over their protective instincts, and she returned to finish her answer and take more questions.

That tenacity is what enabled her to stick her jumps and execute what well may have been her best performance all season during the hardest week of her whole life.

“We thought she was magnificent,” said Theresa Foy, a former competitive skater who traveled from Las Vegas, Nev., with her mother to watch. “From a skating point of view, she was fantastic.”

The judges thought so, too, giving her bronze behind Kim Yuna, whose gold was South Korea’s first Olympic medal in figure skating, and silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan.

Rochette's mom, coach a real team

Rochette’s skating has come along under the watchful eye of Manon Perron since she was 12 years old. During that time, Perron said, she and Rochette’s mother grew close – working as a team to keep Joannie as focused as possible but happy as well.

“She helped me a lot [at the rink],” said Perron, adding that she would give Mrs. Rochette a signal of whether to encourage Joannie or press her a bit after the training session. “She knew which button to push.”

For Rochette, her mother’s intense interest in her progress was difficult at times – particularly when she would stay at the rink while other mothers went away to get dinner.

“Sometimes, I would wish she was not there so I could chat with the other kids,” said Rochette.

Of course, she probably wished nothing more tonight than that her mother had been there to see her step onto the Olympic podium, a bronze medal hanging around her neck – the sequins on her dress dazzling in the spotlight. But her mother country did what it could to fill the void she was feeling.

“Your country can’t replace your mother, obviously,” said Brooke Halford, a fan who was savoring Rochette’s performance as the stands emptied. “But I feel like Canada embraced her as their own.”

---- Christa is heading out to see women's slalom and men's four-man bobsled today. Follow her updates on Twitter, and look for her stories on Facebook.

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