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Rochette's bumpy Vancouver journey smoothing out

There have been some bumps along the way for Joannie Rochette, including a poor short program at her first Grand Prix event of the fall season in China, from which she fought back to a third, and a shaky long performance (unusual in recent seasons for her) at the Grand Prix Final in Japan in early December that pushed her down to fifth, but she came back strongly at the nationals in January.

Season filled with tears, smiles for Canadian skater

Joannie Rochette will need to perform at a new level if she's to reach the podium in Vancouver. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

When Joannie Rochette needs a little extra grit, she can find it in a bag of sand.

It sits at her home in Montreal, a regular reminder of the trip the Olympic figure skating medal hopeful took to Peru last summer on behalf of the non-government charitable organization World Vision Canada.

"Every time I see it, I think about [the trip]," she told CBC Sports before Christmas, and the "it" in this case is the inspiration the 23-year-old found in the life of some of the Peruvians she encountered in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire.

There, she learned the day-to-day reality of the local farmers.

"They have to walk four or five hours with a backpack of vegetables to go sell it in the city and they come back at night," Rochette said. "It never stops, and just to see their determination on a daily basis was really motivating for me."

If that determination can be translated into just that little more of a push for the national champion, it might be the difference needed to achieve something that hasn't been seen in a generation — winning a women's Olympic skating medal for Canada.

Took silver at worlds

Last done by Elizabeth Manley by way of a surprise silver at Calgary in 1988, it seemed to be well within Rochette's reach after she took second at the world championships last spring in Los Angeles.

But there have been some bumps along the way, including a poor short program at her first Grand Prix event of the fall season in China, from which she fought back to a third, and a bumpy long performance (unusual in recent seasons for her) at the Grand Prix Final in Japan in early December that pushed her down to fifth.

At the time of the Tokyo troubles, Rochette was quite simply upset, taking 30 minutes to compose herself before facing the media.

"It was my worst performance in a long time," she said. "My goal coming here was to make the podium. I need to retrain this program and I know it can get good again quickly. I know I can turn this around."

And there were a lot of tears.

But since then, nothing but grit, including a wonderful long program skate at the national championships in January, says her long-time coach, Manon Perron.

"Joannie is doing great, she's back on the track," Perron said from Montreal, even before the gold at London, Ont. "The beginning of the year was up and down, but she learned a few lessons and she's ready to go and I'm happy for her."

New celebrity

Dealing with the media is not something Rochette has always enjoyed this season. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))
That's coaching-speak, by the way, for 'She's back on the right track,' something Perron felt they got off as summer unfolded into fall, what with her star's newfound celebrity as a world medallist.

"After that final in Japan, I had to sit with Joannie and rethink and relook at … the way she was training," the coach said. "After the medal at worlds you have a lot of asking from media, from television, a lot of asking coming from everywhere, from other skaters and coaches."

Perron didn't want to put up roadblocks and say no to everything, and she felt that at 23, Rochette should be allowed to make her own decisions.

"So what happened was, she was really busy and she was so tired, coming into that [Grand Prix] Final and not training badly — but not the way I loved, not the way she trained the year before."

You could see how invasive the public requirements had become by the time Skate Canada rolled around in November at Kitchener, Ont. Rochette and men's national champion Patrick Chan were cock-of-the-walk, while the second- and third-ranked skaters in the country were basically ignored.

Rochette dealt with group and individual interviews by Canadian media, fought off repeated attempts by two Japanese film crews who were trying to get her to say something negative about then-struggling Mao Asada (she would have none of it), and then settled into one-on-ones with various TV outlets.

It took all morning and culminated in an interview in a hot, closet-sized space where she teared up from a coughing fit.

There was still a competition to skate that weekend, one Rochette would win to earn a spot in the Grand Prix Final. But it was easy to see the schedule was gruelling.

Along came Tokyo, and the tears.

'Train, train, train'

Rochette wept in the dressing room after her dismal performance at the Grand Prix Final in Toyko in December, but roared back at the nationals. ((Itsuo Inougy/Associated Press))
"We went into the [dressing] room, and she was crying, yes," Perron says. "But we talked about it and I said … 'If you want to go back and do a really good performance at the Olympics, you have to train this way from now.'

"You have to stop doing all those appearances, you have to train, train, train, train, train, rest, eat properly, sleep properly, train as hard as you can."

After a few weeks of that, she's in great shape, Perron says.

Now, Rochette is saying no, though there are still some fun things to do, like the Rock the Ice Show in Peterborough, Ont., after Christmas. There she hung out with Elvis Stojko and enjoyed herself.

"I know [a medal] is in me," she told the Peterborough Examiner.

To get ready for that successful trip to the nationals (featuring a Canadian record 208.23 overall points), and then beyond to Vancouver, the schedule was tightened. Work with Perron. Off to choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne to make important little changes here and there. Off to Lori Nichol to make sure the timing on the performance is correct.

And a chat or two with sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell.

Then, it's into the cauldron that will be a home-country Olympic Games. Where that sand may pay off in a little heavy metal.