Olympics Winter

Rochette fights through grief

Fighting off tears as she got set to start her short program at the Olympics on Tuesday, Rochette gathered herself before the music began to play and laid down perhaps the most exquisite performance of her career.
Joannie Rochette gave possibly the performance of her life in the short program on Tuesday. ((Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) )

Joannie Rochette held it together as long as she had to.

Fighting off tears as she got set to start her short program at the Vancouver Olympics on Tuesday, Rochette gathered herself before La Cumparsita began to play and laid down perhaps the most exquisite performance of her career.

Hitting all of her elements, Rochette set a new personal best with 71.36 points, well ahead of Japan's Miki Ando (64.76) for third place heading into the free skate on Thursday.

But merely delving into numbers and technique doesn't do Rochette's skate justice. Her performance was about will and love, more than anything else.

The 24-year-old from Île Dupas, Que., is still reeling from the sudden passing of her mother, Thérèse, who died of a massive heart attack in Vancouver on Sunday morning — only two days before she was going to see her daughter compete in the Olympics.

Therese and Normand, Rochette's father, both flew to Vancouver from their home in Montreal to see Rochette perform. Normand had to break the sad news to Joannie on Sunday when she awoke in the athletes' village.

High hopes were put on Rochette before the Games. She is Canada's best chance for a women's figure skating medal since Elizabeth Manley won silver at the 1988 Calgary Games, and she took silver of her own at the 2009 world championships.

But the sudden death of her mother put all thoughts of medals or scores out of mind. Now it was a question of whether Rochette had the will to compete.

Comfort at the rink

That question was answered later Sunday, when Rochette stepped onto the ice at the Pacific Coliseum to practise for the competition. The comfort of the rink might be what's holding her together at such a difficult moment.

"When everything else is crazy in your life, when you're a skater, the place that is the most normal for you is the rink," said CBC figure-skating expert Pj Kwong. 

"So in trying to struggle with something that seems impossible, like the death of her mother, going to the rink where she's at home, where everything is predictable ... I think that's probably the most comforting place for her to have been."

Flash forward to Tuesday. Rochette steps onto the ice. The crowd is embracing but not overzealous, as if afraid to remind her of everything she's been through in the past 60 hours.

The music starts. A transformation takes place. Spectators hold their breath as Rochette approaches her first element, a triple Lutz/double toe loop combination.

She lands it. Then proceeds to land everything else.

"I think her mother gave her wings," Canadian chef de mission Nathalie Lambert told The Canadian Press.

For nearly three intense minutes, Rochette put everything aside and focused on skating. Then the music ended, and her emotions rose to the surface.

A teary-eyed Joannie Rochette, right, embraces coach Manon Perron following her short program. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

Rochette, in tears, took a bow as the crowd gave her a standing ovation. She skated off the ice and fell weeping into the arms of her coach, Manon Perron.

Under any circumstance, Rochette's short-program skate on Tuesday was one of the best of her career. Under these trying times, Rochette has possibly given the performance of her life.

There's still a long way to go for her, with the free skate on Thursday, if she hopes to hang on to the bronze-medal spot or move up. 

She's behind South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, who skated out of her mind Tuesday and set a world record with 78.50 points. Rival Mao Asada from Japan scored 73.78 for second.

But this isn't about medals or scores anymore for Rochette. While she waited for her marks with tears in her eyes, it appeared she was repeating one sentence, over and over:

"C'est pour toi, Maman."

For you, Mom.