Joannie Rochette never needed figure skating more than at the Vancouver Olympics.
It gave her a comfort zone as she competed days after her mother died of a heart attack, winning a bronze medal with one of the most courageous performances her sport has seen. Looking back, the Canadian champion knows the difficult decision to skate was the correct one.
"Some people can't understand why I would keep skating at the Olympics," Rochette says. "For me, it did not make sense to just be grieving. Even if it was tough for me to force myself to do it, I knew I had to do it, because my mom would want it. I knew the skating, the competition at the Olympics, it was keeping me alive."
Therese Rochette, 55, died shortly after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter, the 2009 world silver medallist, compete at her second Olympics. Joannie Rochette practised later that day, and the next. On Feb. 23, she skated her short program "almost in a vacuum" and wound up third. Two nights later, her free skate brought her the bronze — and the lasting admiration of anyone who witnessed it.
Withdrawing, she says, was never an option.
"My mom always told me whatever you take on in life, when you are at the point where you are sick of it or tired of it or not sure you want to do it, that's the time to go full-force," Rochette says. "She said the sense of accomplishment you get is so rewarding. I guess she was right, especially with skating.
"I was in my bubble at the Olympics. I didn't watch TV or read .… I concentrated on the competition. I was just eating, sleeping, practising, to do what I had come to do and to do what my mom had worked so hard for me to do."
Rochette was "shocked" at the widespread reaction to her tragedy and her triumph. Oh, there were immediate indications of how her story inspired people — winning the Terry Fox Award that honors athletes who embody determination, courage and humility, then being selected by teammates to carry the Canadian flag at the closing ceremony.
Once she left Vancouver, though, Rochette soon realized how much of an impact she has made. Strangers stop her to congratulate her and share their thoughts. They don't just offer good luck greetings anymore; they feel an attachment to her. Some even relate how they handled the grief of losing someone close.
'Support has been incredible'
Earlier this week, she was walking in Montreal when some drivers lowered their windows to say they "were all behind me." At the airport, she was stopped by a customs officer. "Did I do something wrong?" she wondered, but he simply wanted to chat.
"The support has been incredible," she says. "I have this huge box at home with cards and e-mails and gifts. I go through it a little at a time; it's too much for me to do all of it now. But people are very respectful."
After Friday night's exhibition routine to Celine Dion's Vole — one of her mother's favourite songs — at Thin Ice, a made-for-television event in Connecticut, Rochette will make occasional appearances with the U.S. leg of the Stars on Ice tour. She also will headline the tour in Canada and Japan.
She has been invited as one of 20 Canadian women celebrities to wear a red designer gown for the Heart Truth fashion show that benefits the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Renowned designer Nadya Toto is making the dress for Rochette.
"The cause is a great one to me," Rochette says. "If I can do anything to help promote a healthy lifestyle, I will do it."
She also will spend a lot of time back home with her father, Normand, and her grandfather. Rochette wants to buy a new house in Montreal, and she wants to help teach her dad to cook.
What about competitive skating? Not yet, but perhaps soon enough.
"When I got back from Olympics I wanted to go to the world championships," she says. "I was home for a week, we had the funeral arrangements and I was with my family and I missed a big time in training and I missed a lot of sleep. I would not be in top shape and I do not want to participate in a competition if I am not at the level I can be. I want to be respectful to the fans and to the sport."