Through grief and tears, a triumph on the ice for Rochette
When it could not be put off any longer, Joannie Rochette of Canada slapped her coach's hands, took a deep breath and circled the ice, no doubt wondering along with everyone else whether her emotions would overcome her or inspire her.
And then, two days after her mother died, Rochette skated a poignant Olympic performance Tuesday that was summoned from heartbreaking grief and extraordinary composure.
She finished third in the short program on a night that will be remembered as one of the most stirring in Olympic figure skating history in terms of athleticism, artistry, emotion and challenges answered out of competitive fervor and aching sorrow.
Mao Asada of Japan landed the first triple axel ever performed in combination by a woman at the Winter Games. Then Kim Yu-na of South Korea responded with a soaring triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, remarkable speed and sublime spins that accumulated into a world-record performance of 78.50 points.
As her slinky James Bond routine ended, Kim pointed an imaginary pistol at the judges as if to say that her aim was unswervingly set on a gold medal in Thursday's free skate.
"Everybody just stood up and commanded the ice," said Michelle Kwan, the two-time Olympic medalist. "One after another, it was like fireworks exploding."
In the end, it was Rochette, 24, who delivered the night's most affecting performance, which came after her mother, Therese, 55, suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead early Sunday morning.
"I give her the gold medal for courage," said Robin Wagner, who coached Sarah Hughes to the gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.
For four hours, Tuesday's short program unfurled as the first 25 skaters performed their routines. Dorothy Hamill, the 1976 Olympic champion, said that she was sitting with Peggy Fleming, the 1968 gold medalist, when the subject of Rochette came up.
"We were thinking, 'She must just be numb,' " Hamill said.
Mirai Nagasu, the American teenager who would finish sixth, skated relatively early in the night, then said of Rochette, "I think she's doing the right thing for her mom; that's what the two of them worked so hard for. I think she'll do her best."
Finally, as the first skater in the final group of the night, Rochette stepped onto the ice. William Thompson, the chief executive of Skate Canada, the country's national governing body, looked at her beforehand and thought that she was struggling emotionally. Many in the crowd at Pacific Coliseum, seemingly split between Canadian, South Korean and Japanese supporters, got to their feet and began waving the Maple Leaf flag, trying to buoy her with their support.
"She had the whole nation carrying her through this performance," said Brian Orser, a two-time Olympic silver medalist for Canada who now coaches Kim.
Rochette finished second to Kim at the 2009 world championships, but she struggled mightily through this season, sometimes finding it difficult to stay on her feet. Tuesday, she seemed to wobble for a moment - perhaps hitting a rut in the ice - during her long backward, diagonal approach to launching her triple lutz.
But Rochette gathered herself, landed a triple lutz-double toe loop combination and followed with a vaulting triple flip and a double axel. Skating to the familiar tango song "La Cumparsita" and wearing an elegant costume with a red rose etched on the back, she received a score of 71.36, beating her previous personal best of 70.00. Her father, Norman, cried the entire time that Rochette was on the ice, according to news accounts. So, apparently, did many of the 11,700 in the arena.
"I couldn't stop crying, especially watching her just stand upright, let alone having a great short program," Kwan said. "I think she was able to say, 'I'm trained and I'm able to step through it.' It was just incredible. Everyone was pulling for her. I don't know how, emotionally, she could handle that."
After her performance ended, Rochette did not try.
She began to tear up, and she put her hand over her heart. She cried as she hugged her coach, Manon Perron. She waved and blew kisses to the crowd. In the kiss-and-cry area, she seemed to say something in French to her mother, perhaps, "This is for you" or "Thanks for being there for me," but no one was certain of her words.
In a statement, Rochette said, "I feel good. It's hard to be precise, but 10 years from now, I would want to come back and try this again. I have no regrets."
She would remember the crowd forever, she said, even though the moment was difficult to bear. Thompson, the chief executive of Skate Canada, called her performance "magical and so heroic." But he cautioned that the Olympic competition was far from finished. Tuesday's short program will be followed by a four-minute-plus free skate on Thursday. A medal is possible for Rochette, but no one knows how long her grief can be suppressed or forged into something constructive.
"Let's be honest," Thompson said. "She's on a very difficult emotional roller coaster that's not going to end tonight. This was helpful, for sure, but it's not the end."
If she does maintain her emotional ballast on Thursday, he said, "She's done more than any of us could have hoped for under the circumstances."
Written by Jere Longman, New York Times