Road To The Olympic Games


Rochette's emergence boosts Canadian women skaters

You ask a long-time figure skating judge about Joannie Rochette and here's what you get in response: "I see the confidence. I see the poise. She's comfortable in her own skin definitely, and shess a fighter."

You ask a long-time figure skating judge about Joannie Rochette and here's what you get in response:

"I see the confidence. I see the poise. She's comfortable in her own skin definitely, and she's a fighter. And I think she's got everything you need to be a champion … I think she's smart and she's got guts. She really has what it takes."

No, Rochette is not an American. Not Japanese. Nor Russian.

Rochette is the skater from the little village of Ile Dupas, Que., who last spring ended a 21-year medal drought for Canadian women at the world figure skating championship by taking a silver.

Canadian female skaters of note

1948: Ottawa's Barbara Ann Scott wins the gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland at the age of 19. She is a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and an Order of Canada recipient.

1962: Wendy Griner, of Hamilton, wins the silver medal in ladies singles at the world championships. She was a four-time national champion.

1964: Petra Burka, of Toronto, takes bronze at the Winter Olympics and the worlds. The following year she would win the global title and then take a bronze in 1966.

1972: Karen Magnussen, of Vancouver, wins the silver medal at the Winter Olympics and world championships. She'd take gold in the worlds in 1973, her third global medal, and earn an Order of Canada.

1988: Elizabeth Manley, of Ottawa, wins a surprise silver medal at the Winter Games and follows that up with a strong silver at the worlds.

2009: Joannie Rochette, of Ile Dupas, is silver medalist at the world championships, first to finish on the podium in 21 years

The fact Casey Kelly was speaking about a female singles skater from this country must seem extraordinary to those of a certain age, given the long years of disappointment from the high of Liz Manley's silver medal at the 1988 Olympics through about 20 years of disappointment.

Rochette heads to the Olympics in Vancouver next February as a medal favourite, and, perhaps, the person who can knock off South Korea's Yu-Na Kim for the gold.

Heady days for women's program

Heady days, for sure, and a dream based on reality not just words.

"It is one thing to say, 'Yes, I want to be an Olympic champion' and then [another to] have the skills and ability to do it," says Mike Slipchuk, high-performance director for Skate Canada, who was getting ready to fly into Paris for the opening event of the season.

"[Joannie] has placed herself in the position for that opportunity."

Kelly, an experienced judge on the junior circuit who accompanied Rochette on her first major international event in Mexico when the Quebecer was a young teen, has been critical in the past of the way female singles skaters have been coached in this country.

Basically, she believed, the bar hadn't been set high enough, and the goal wasn't big enough, to get the results everyone wanted. That was seen down to the youngest levels, where she says you could hear the difference between young Canadians and Americans.

"In the United States, when the kids go to take a skating test, the language they use is "I am going to take my junior bronze free skate test," says Kelly, daughter of NHL Hall of Famer Red Kelly and long-time figure skating coach Andra, not to mention sister of former Olympic speed skater Patrick.

"In Canada, the language has always been, 'Well, I'm going to try my test.' "

One is confident, the other "puts a little more doubt in there."

There has been a sea-change, however, and it's producing people like Rochette and youngsters like Manitoba's Kate Charbonneau, who won silver recently at an ISU junior event, and Cambria Little, of B.C.

"There is much more confidence and attack going on [in Canadian skating] then there has been in many years," says Kelly, who also believes changes in how the sport is judged are key to helping coaches plan routines for their athletes that will produce winners.

Rochette on correct path

Slipchuk points out that Rochette has taken the correct path with her coach Manon Perron, building gradually, steadily, staying on course while young skaters "came zipping by and disappeared off the landscape."

It's precisely because she has developed the skills to legitimately compete at the top of the world circuit that her fighting instinct can be put to such good use.

"Any skater on the podium is a tough competitor," Slipchuk says. "But you do need that strong base and technical ability."

A little inspiration is nice, too. Rochette's success can be nothing but a positive for young skaters coming up behind her.

Kelly sees it when the Canadian women's champ comes into the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club to work with her choreographers.

"She's easy to talk to, and really friendly with the kids, and that's great too," Kelly says. "She's setting a fantastic example."

For her part, Rochette understands the importance of being something to look up to.

"I just hope to inspire some young girls who want to achieve big things in skating and make them believe it's possible," she said in Los Angeles after winning her world silver medal.

"They know my history, and know that five years ago no one would have thought - or even three years ago - that I would be on the podium, that I had the talent to be on it."

Kelly, the former sceptic, is now an enthusiast.

"I am really hoping [Joannie] is going to show everybody in the world that she is there to take that [Olympic] title," she says.

"As much as I love Yu-Na Kim, because I see her training on a daily basis too and she's fantastic … but she can be beaten, and I think that Joannie, of anybody else out there, she's got the goods to do it."

Heady days, indeed.

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