There is an easy, knee-jerk reaction to CBCSports.ca’s choice of Joannie Rochette as Canada's female athlete of the year for 2010.
If her mother had not died.… Well, yes. But Rochette's story is one of both perseverance and an outstanding athletic achievement and therefore deserving of acclaim.
The Canadian figure skater from tiny Île Dupas, Que., was sleeping quietly in Vancouver's athletes village, two days before she was to begin a quest for an Olympic medal, when she was awakened by her father Normand with life-changing news.
Therese Rochette, 55, had died of a heart attack in a local hospital overnight.
What happened over the next 100-plus hours, and the athletic achievement that resulted in a third-place finish in women's singles, made Rochette’s performances worthy of our vote.
Consider the situation facing Rochette as she went to bed the night before her personal tragedy struck.
Through The Looking Glass
CBC skating analyst Pj Kwong reveals in her new book, Taking the Ice, a previously unknown story about Joannie Rochette's short program triumph at the Vancouver Olympics.
The Canadian skater's mother, Therese, who died two days before the women's competition began, had always found it difficult watching her daughter skate live because of the pressure.
Coach Manon Perron asked the skater's father, Normand, for Therese's glasses and took them with her to the rink for the short performance. She did not tell Joannie.
As the short program began, Perron held the glasses in her hands, clutching them ever tighter through one successful jump, a second one in combination, then the third. At that point, success assured, one of the lenses from the glasses fell to the floor.
The glasses were easily repairable, but it must have seemed as though mother was still there.
Pressure and expectation
Rochette represented Canada’s first legitimate hope for a women's figure skating medal at the Olympics in 22 years, going back to Liz Manley's superb individual silver performance at Calgary in 1988.
Since then, there had been nothing to produce true optimism (as opposed to misplaced hope) until Rochette emerged on the scene and showed she was legitimate with a silver medal at the 2009 world championships in Los Angeles.
By the fall, however, things had become bumpy. Too much media, charity work, other distractions had left coach Manon Perron worried.
A poor short program performance at the Grand Prix of China and a bumpy long program at Skate Canada (and that was quite unusual) forced the coach and skater to refocus and go back to training, proper rest and food.
It had worked. While the short, and its three big jumps and combos, was still a tad shaky, the long had been great at the national championships in London, Ont.
So into Vancouver went Rochette, with the national media expecting nothing less than a medal — hardly different from what the skater and her coach were looking for, as well.
Kurt Browning, the former world champion, has said that for a long time, stepping on the ice "and believing in herself" was not something that came naturally for Rochette. It seemed to be coming, however.
And then she was awakened on Sunday morning.
One for the ages
What made the following days so inspiring were two personal decisions the 24-year-old made — one conscious and the other perhaps more deeply realized.
Rochette was given the chance to go home and not skate at all — no one would have thought any less of her. She did not.
And Rochette now had an excuse for not earning a medal. She did not take it.
'I think even before that skate, in the warm-up, you could sense the tension. And everybody, every time Joannie did something [warming up], there was applause. People were really pulling for her in a way I have never experienced at a skating competition.'—— Pj Kwong, CBC analyst and the IOC’s rink-side announcer
For two days, Perron and Canadian figure skating officials built a bubble around Rochette, keeping a respectful press at a distance.
The coach pushed her through a tough workout at the rink on the Monday and tried to ensure that everything would keep to its usual form in the short program to come.
Except it did not. Under a worldwide media spotlight that was focused tightly on the Canadian hope, weighed down by emotion, with almost no sleep, having eaten very little for 48 hours, Rochette skated the best short program of her life.
The music was La Cumparsita. Her costume was a cascade of red roses down the right shoulder. And those three jumps and jump-combos that had been such a difficulty to that point, were near perfect, including the triple lutz-double toe.
A mark of 71.36 left her in third place behind runaway favourite Kim Yu-Na, and Mao Asada.
Only at the famous "kiss and cry" did Rochette allow the emotions to come pouring out, hugging her coach and dedicating her massive performance to Therese: "C'est pour toi, mama … c'est pour toi."
For Browning, there are two feelings you can have when you step into the spotlight in the middle of the ice at a major competition. There's one of doubt and fear, if you are not ready. And there's one of stepping "into that cocoon of love and trust" with the crowd, if you are.
Somehow, some way ("It might have been an out of body experience," Browning says), she was ready that Tuesday night in Vancouver. And she skated into the cocoon to honour her mother in the best way possible.
Battling for the medal
Two days after that, with 48 hours more to process emotionally what was happening to her, Rochette went out and hung on to that third place, battling through her Samson and Delilah routine.
Her only real problem was an awkward landing on a triple flip jump, and that was enough to keep her from moving up on Asada for second.
When it was done, there was no collapse. Only a strong young woman, standing proudly on the podium to receive her bronze medal, keeping her composure as best as she could.
In that moment, Browning believes, Rochette went from being Canada’s skater to something bigger. They performed together, just this month, in a charity event at San Antonio, Texas, where he introduced her as "a citizen of the world."
Achieving as a high-performance athlete comes down to talent, years of preparation and coaching, plus the mental toughness needed to get over the rough spots.
On all of those, Joannie Rochette was at the top of her game in Vancouver. And the best of our great female athletes this year.
The following athletes also received votes from members of the CBCSports.ca team.
In arguably the deepest event in all of track and field, Lopes-Schliep was best of the best. Lopes-Schliep blazed to a 12.52 time in London in August, fastest of the year, and won the inaugural Diamond League series competition in the 100 metre hurdles later in the month in Brussels.
The speedskater sparkled with a gold medal in the 1,000 at the Vancouver Games, but how she responded later in the year was just as remarkable.
Nesbitt overcame a fractured elbow that occurred when her bicycle was hit by a car in the offseason. As of Dec. 14, she had won all four 1,000 metre races and gone 3-for-3 in the 1,500 to begin the 2010—11 World Cup season, with an eighth goal coming in team pursuit.
Just 23, Agosta outshone some more celebrated women's hockey players in Vancouver. She set a women's record with three career Olympic hat tricks, and led all tournament players with 16 assists (nine goals, seven assists). The last was an assist to set up the insurance marker in the gold medal game.
Groves was tops in the 1,500 during the 2009-10 World Cup season and helped Canada end up first in team pursuit. She won silver in the 1,500 metres and bronze in the 3,000 — she missed the podim in the 1,000 by 6-100ths — giving her four career Olympic medals.
Here are a some other Canadian women who had accomplishments of note in 2010.
Perdita Felicien: Overshadowed by Lopes-Schliep, the hurdler enjoyed her best year since 2007.
Clara Hughes: Capped her Winter Games career with a bronze, tying a Canadian record with six career Olympic medals.
Ashleigh McIvor: Defending world skicross champ wins the inaugural women's Olympic competition.
Heather Moyse: Won Olympic gold as brakeman for Kaillie Humphries and represented Canada at the Women's Rugby World Cup.
Maelle Ricker: About 11 years after winning her first X-games medal, Ricker become the first Canadian woman to win gold on home soil, in snowboardcross.
Christine Sinclair: FIFA finalist for women's player of the year scored six goals to help Canada qualify for next year's World Cup.