Figure Skating

Rochette wins CP's female athlete of the year

It was a year in which Joannie Rochette went from the depths of despair to the peak of admiration in the hearts of Canadians. The figure skater glided through her tears to an Olympic bronze medal just days after her mother's sudden tragic death.

Skater captured bronze medal just days after her mother's death

It was a year in which Joannie Rochette went from the depths of despair to the peak of admiration in the hearts of Canadians.

A contender on the Canadian figure skating team going into the Vancouver Olympics, she glided through her tears to a bronze medal within days of her mother's sudden tragic death.

Her courage in the face of adversity, which sparked an outpouring of support both in Canada and elsewhere, is one of the reasons she has been named Canada's female athlete of the year in an annual survey of the country's newsrooms by The Canadian Press.

"It's a huge honour to be getting this award," Rochette said in an interview in Montreal.

"For people to be voting for me one year after the Games means a lot to me. I had a lot of support, a lot of love during the Games in Vancouver and I'll never forget that."

Rochette said the support helped her get through that tough week in Vancouver after her mother Therese's death from a heart attack.

"I don't think you ever know what you're made of until something like this happens," said the 24-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Que.

"My mom raised me that way, to be strong no matter what happens, but that was for me the toughest test ever."

Rochette, who carried the Canadian flag at the closing ceremonies in Vancouver, took first place in a survey of sports editors and broadcasters with 205 points, including a majority of the first-place votes.

She is the first figure skater to win the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award since Tracey Wainman in 1981. The award is named after Rosenfeld, an Olympic champion and all-rounder who was voted Canada's top female athlete for the first half of the 20th century.

Rochette led a field that included acclaimed speedskaters Clara Hughes and Christine Nesbitt.

She grabbed almost twice as many points as Hughes, with Nesbitt finishing third, just ahead of snowboarder Maelle Ricker and moguls skier Jennifer Heil.

"No athlete on the planet defined the word perseverance better or in more dramatic fashion than Joannie Rochette," said Mitch Melnick, a host on The Team 990 in Montreal.

Denis Bouchard, managing editor of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean Le Quotidien, said Rochette "transcended her sport" with an "extraordinary performance."

Citing her strength and concentration, Bouchard added, "She reigns in the big leagues of 2010 with Sidney Crosby, Ryder Hesjedal and Alexandre Bilodeau."

Kevin Jesus of CFSK TV/Global TV in Saskatoon said Rochette would have been forgiven if she had pulled out of the Winter Olympics to mourn her mother, whom she lovingly called her biggest fan and toughest critic.

"Instead she pushed through and wore her heart on her sleeve," Jesus said. "She provided inspiration for people all over the world and for that she deserves to be named Canada's top female athlete for 2010."

Rochette said she was "touched" that voters were affected by her poignant story.

She is also philosophical about it figuring into the accolades, noting that, in skating as in life, "nothing is really objective."

"It's part of my story, I accept it," she said. "At the same time, it is also thanks to my mother that I was able to get through it. I am aware of this fact but it doesn't stop me from being really happy that people voted for me."

Rochette, who won Canada's first Olympic women's singles medal since Elizabeth Manley took silver in Calgary in 1988, says people have also told her that her story has helped them get through tough times of their own.

Rochette, who has been skating for nearly 20 years, looks back on her Olympic performance with some wonder.

She arrived in Vancouver as one of Canada's medal favourites after having won silver at the 2009 world championships.

Then her world came crashing down Feb. 21 when she awakened to news that her mom had suffered a fatal heart attack as she sat down to rest in Vancouver.

But less than seven hours after receiving the devastating news, Rochette wiped away tears, took a deep breath and hit the Pacific Coliseum ice to practise.

Then, on Feb. 23, Rochette turned in a courageous performance in the short program to move into third position.

When the music stopped the tears flowed, and Rochette's pretty face, twisted in sadness, became one of the enduring images of the Games.

And two days later, with her father Normand again in the crowd, the elegant skater mustered all her strength and clinched bronze with an emotional performance in the long program.

Officials had given her the option to pull out but she wanted to finish a journey that began when she and her mom watched Oksana Baiul win gold at the 1994 Olympics.

"To win a medal after all that happened was beyond my expectations," Rochette said. "To be able to skate like I did – I surprised myself."

Rochette has only competed once since the Olympics, at the Japan Open, which she won. She has been on the ice-show circuit, which she cheerfully says is "not as glamorous as it seems."

"We're living out of a bus, city after city. Sometimes we have an eight or nine-hour drive and we still have to perform the next day on the ice because people are buying tickets to see a show.

"But it's very motivating, it's a lot of fun and I'm going to do this for a couple of years, for sure."

As she points out, "I feel so lucky to still be doing what I love, to be able to make a living out of my hobby."

But for all the praise and excitement, it's clear that nothing will ever completely fill the gap left by her mom's death.

"It's not just in my sporting life that I need my mother," she said.

"I need her for everything — my marriage, the children I hope to have one day. She's going to miss these moments just like I miss her now."

For the first time in 2010, The Canadian Press conducted a people's choice poll for its annual awards, along with Yahoo! Canada. Rochette was also the public's first choice, with 48 per cent of the vote, ahead of Hughes at 16 per cent.

The Canadian Press team of the year will be announced Wednesday, followed by male athlete of the year Thursday.