Grieving Rochette faces her hardest skate
It isn't an exaggeration, not by a long shot.
When she steps onto the ice at Pacific Coliseum Tuesday to perform her short program in the women's figure skating competition at the Vancouver Olympics, Canada's Joannie Rochette will face the most difficult skate of her life.
That's because Rochette will be skating with the heaviest of hearts, as she continues to cope with the sudden death of her mother, Therese, who passed away Sunday morning in Vancouver of a heart attack. She was 55.
Therese and Rochette's father, Normand, flew to Vancouver from their home in Montreal to see their daughter compete at the Games.
Many wondered if Rochette, of Île Dupas, Que., would even perform in the wake of her tragedy. But mere hours after her father, Normand, told her of the news, Rochette was back on the ice at the Coliseum, training, focusing.
She was set on competing, which Skate Canada confirmed in a release Sunday.
"We have received so many emails and texts, and we wanted people to know that we read everything that you are sending," Rochette and her coach Manon Perron said in a release.
"We also want everyone to know that these messages are helping us to get through this. We are going to do it with Therese. Even though we aren't able to respond to everyone, please keep them coming for both of us."
'A very courageous person'
Rochette and Perron won't be doing any interviews until after the competition is finished.
"Joannie is a very courageous person, and just to be here in the practice hall, I was very impressed," Canadian teammate Cynthia Phaneuf told the New York Times.
"I think she is doing the right thing. She won't get any better staying in her room. It shows how strong she is. It shows that she is a person to look up to here."
Even before this devastating blow, Rochette was in tough during the competition. All eyes are on 19-year-old sensation Kim Yu-na, South Korea's skating celebrity, who is escorted routinely by bodyguards in her home country in order to ward off screaming fans.
They're excited for good reason. Kim, the reigning world champion, who's coached by former Canadian figure skating star Brian Orser, has only lost twice on the World Cup circuit in the last two seasons.
Those two losses came to rival Mao Asada, from Japan. Ranked third on the World Cup circuit this season, Asada has achieved rock-star status of her own in her home country, and is a challenger to Kim's throne.
Her fellow countrywoman Miki Ando took bronze in the world championships this season, and is the other big podium threat. Between the three, Kim, Asada and Ando have won seven of the nine podium places in the last three world championships.
Which brings us back to Rochette. The 24-year-old won silver behind Kim at those same world championships in March 2009, and many pegged her as the only one who could unseat Kim in Vancouver.
Already facing pressure
Rochette was already facing a lot of pressure heading into the Games. The reigning six-time national champion is Canada's best hope for a women's Olympic figure skating medal since Elizabeth Manley won silver in 1988. That was before tragedy turned her world upside-down.
But she's a fighter. She's already proven that by continuing to compete.
"I am more than amazed. I am having emotions even myself, because you have to look at the situation, it's not easy," Skate Canada president Benoit Lavoie told The Canadian Press.
"Any athlete, they're getting so ready for this event, and something external happens, you don't know how you're going to react, but again, physically she was so ready for this event, now I think she can prove to us how strong to us beyond her limits, and I think this is great.
"She is very, very strong and I admire her so much for that. I'm very proud, very proud. We should all be."
And you can bet she will be given the loudest ovation imaginable when she steps onto the ice Tuesday at the Pacific Coliseum, regardless of the outcome.