CBC Sports Oral Histories: The staggering grief and incredible grace of Joannie Rochette

CBC Sports Oral Histories: The staggering grief and incredible grace of Joannie Rochette


Sudden death of the figure skater’s mother came days before Joannie was to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics

By Doug Harrison, CBC Sports
January 6, 2022
 

Two days before Joannie Rochette was to compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, tragedy struck. Thérèse Rochette, Joannie’s mother, died of a massive heart attack - a day after the 55-year-old arrived in Vancouver to cheer on her daughter.

This is the story of that trauma and triumph, from Joannie and those closest to her.

Fans show their support for Joannie Rochette during the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in February of 2010. (The Canadian Press) Fans show their support for Joannie Rochette during the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in February of 2010. (The Canadian Press)
 

Joannie Rochette remembers feeling pressure to perform at an elite level “two or three years” before the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She had seen the seemingly endless stories recalling Elizabeth Manley’s silver medal from 1988, the most recent Olympic podium finish by a Canadian women’s figure skater.

Coming off a 2009 world championship silver medal, Rochette’s struggles to open the fall season included a poor short program and third-place finish at her first Grand Prix event and a bumpy long performance at the Grand Prix Final in Japan in early December that pushed Rochette to fifth.

Two months before arriving in Vancouver, with the pressure undoubtedly mounting, Rochette needed a mental break and returned to her family home in Ile-Dupas, Que.

Joannie Rochette: The Grand Prix Final was really bad, I remember. When I got home for Christmas, I needed some help from my family because I was so sick of everyone talking about the Olympics and seeing ads on television. Olympic season is very stressful, and you want everything to be perfect.

Guillaume Gfeller, Rochette’s former partner/retired ice dancer: The Olympic season is always very intense, there’s a lot more scrutiny and pressure in the sport. The whole season was challenging [for her]. There were personal elements, I think, adding to the pressure that year.

Steve Milton, author/figure skating writer, Hamilton Spectator: The fact she won a silver medal [at worlds] increases expectations [the next season]. I don’t know if it had anything to do with the unexpected start to that season.

Rochette returned to the ice and won a sixth Canadian women’s title in mid-January 2010, her best performance of the season in the free skate (long program) and scored a Canadian-record 208.23 points overall ahead of the Feb. 12 Olympics.

Joannie Rochette, second from bottom right, is pictured with the Canadian figure skating team as they were named ahead of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. (Reuters) Joannie Rochette, second from bottom right, is pictured with the Canadian figure skating team as they were named ahead of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. (Reuters)
Normand Rochette watches his daughter, Joannie, compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, just days after the sudden death of his wife, Thérèse. (The Canadian Press) Normand Rochette watches his daughter, Joannie, compete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, just days after the sudden death of his wife, Thérèse. (The Canadian Press)

Rochette: Nationals gave me a big boost of confidence. I did feel the pressure [before the Olympics] but Liz Manley was at our pre-Olympic camp and we had a chat. She said, ‘You have to believe in you because I do. I believe you will be the next [Canadian women’s Olympic figure skating medallist] and I’m giving you all my energy.’

Manon Perron, Rochette’s longtime coach: An Olympic year, especially in your country, is always super stressful. At nationals after a reset everything was going well. She was solid, physically and mentally. I was not worried for her going for a medal at the Olympics because for Joannie, three weeks of amazing training would make her really good.

It was time to shine [in Vancouver]. She was doing a lot of training, run throughs and almost perfect all the time.

On Feb. 21, two days before the Olympic women’s short program, tragedy struck. Thérèse Rochette, Joannie’s mother, died of a massive heart attack - a day after the 55-year-old arrived in Vancouver to cheer on her daughter.

Dr. Wayne Halliwell, Joannie Rochette’s sports psychologist: Mike Slipchuk [Skate Canada high performance director] and I were rooming together, and he woke me up around 2 or 3 in the morning after getting word that Joannie’s mom had passed. I drove to West Van, where Manon Perron was staying, and picked her up.

Perron: When I got the call from Wayne [I was speechless]. I passed the phone to my husband because I thought I was dreaming. But it wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare.

Dr. Halliwell: Joannie was rooming with [fellow Canadian skater] Tessa Virtue and we knew Tessa had a treatment, I think, at 7 a.m. We decided to wake up Joannie when Tessa was out of the room.

 

Rochette: It is kind of a blur, but I remember my dad [Normand] left me a voicemail on my phone at midnight or one in the morning. He said, ‘Something’s not right. Call me back, please, it’s urgent.’ The power on my [cell] phone wasn’t on and I got the message at six in the morning. When I called him he said, ‘Don’t move, we’re coming to you.’

I was confused because I was in the [Olympic] Village and [wondered] how could he be coming here? I opened the door and I think it was my dad, Wayne Halliwell, my coach and a family friend from Montreal. I realized my mom was not there and it was probably something going on with her.

I thought maybe she went to the hospital because in the voicemail [from my dad] I could hear an ambulance siren. I didn’t think they would tell me she had passed away. I was shocked and thought ‘maybe I’ll wake up from a bad dream.’

Almost right away we went to the hospital and I got to see my mom. I took her socks and kept them, so that was a piece of her I could take.

Thérèse Rochette is shown at left with her daughter, Joannie, in this family photo.(Photo submitted by Joannie Rochette) Thérèse Rochette is shown at left with her daughter, Joannie, in this family photo.(Photo submitted by Joannie Rochette)
 

Two summers prior to the Olympics, for her birthday, I got her some running shoes and Lululemon training clothes because I wanted us to go for walks or maybe light jogs because she had gained a bit of weight. She was a smoker all her life and I tried to get her to stop.

I was concerned [about her] but at the same time I was very focused with the Olympics and training and I was not home often.

Gfeller: The plan was [Joannie and I] would arrive [in Vancouver] separately and weren’t supposed to see each other. She called me the morning [the day her mom passed] and I think I got the first Montreal-to-Vancouver flight.

Joannie picked me up at the airport. Wayne was there, Manon. It was surreal and so intense, Joannie’s emotions. How do you deal with something so unexpected?

Her and her mom were so close, at another level. Losing her mom was the worst thing that could happen to her.

Manon Perron, Rochette's coach, speaks with her during a practice session in Vancouver. (Reuters) Manon Perron, Rochette's coach, speaks with her during a practice session in Vancouver. (Reuters)
 

Rochette announced she would compete in the short program in two days and took to the ice for a practice session, applauded by the few people in the rink after completing a run through of her short program, a tango.

Rochette: When I called my grandmother, my mother’s mom, to tell her the news, I was crying for maybe five minutes straight. At one point she said, ‘You have to go and skate, stop crying.’ That made me laugh so hard. I thought it was cute she was trying to be so strong for me.

I knew I wanted to try but I was afraid I’d get on the ice; they would announce my name and I’d be unable to move.

Dr. Halliwell: We were coming back from the hospital and Joannie said, ‘I’m going to do it for my mom.’ I said, ‘Joannie, you’ll not only skate for your mom, you’ll skate with your mom. She’ll be there for every spin, every jump.’ Figure skating is based on feel and emotion, being able to feel the message you want to share with the people watching you skate, and that became the focus.

Perron: I said to Joannie, ‘What do you have to lose? [Your mom] would want you to skate’ but you never know what might happen [when she stepped on the ice].

Rochette: Waking up the morning of the short program, the wait feels like forever and it’s so stressful and nerve-wracking.

Usually when I warmed up with my coach I loved to joke around and talk about other things but that day it was hard to joke around.

I could feel the heaviness [of the moment] and everyone was walking on eggshells. There was a lot of crying, of course, but I tried to focus on my skate and keep my mind clear. Once you get on the ice, you feel better.

 

On Feb. 23, Rochette put on one of the best performances of her career, earning a personal-best 71.36 points in the short program at Pacific Coliseum, skating to La Cumparsita by Gerardo Hernan Matos Rodriguez.

Focused and precise, Rochette earned high marks for her triple Lutz/double toe loop combination and spiral sequence. She finished with her combination spin --  letting the emotions go when the music stopped, clutching her chest and embracing Perron.

Perron: I remember just before the Lutz she almost tripped and I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s over’ and then she skated back and did that triple Lutz. I knew how strong Joannie was. When she decided to do something, she was doing it, and I knew she would be able to manage.

Before she entered [the ice] I said, ‘It’s going to be loud or maybe total silence. Are you ready for both situations? And she said, ‘Yes.’ When you’re well-trained, you erase all the thoughts coming into your mind and skate, and that’s what she did.

It was incredible to see all the other skaters, the media, other coaches, the public. They really pushed Joannie.

Rochette clasps her hand over her chest during her short program in Vancouver on Feb. 23, 2010. (Getty Images) Rochette clasps her hand over her chest during her short program in Vancouver on Feb. 23, 2010. (Getty Images)

Milton: When she landed that combination at the start that was big, because that meant she was over the hardest part and was probably going to be in contention for a medal. I thought, ‘Jesus, this might happen.’

The big thing, technically, was the short program. You couldn’t win a championship with a short program, but you could lose it.

The lede in the story I wrote when she did the short program was, ‘If you weren’t choking back tears watching Joannie Rochette and if you weren’t choking back tears thinking of Joannie Rochette, check yourself into emotional rehab.’

I’m getting a bit teary thinking about it.

Dr. Halliwell: I had seen her skate for so long, as soon as she landed the first jump, she was off to the races. I try to have all the athletes I work with perform with confidence and consistency. She not only had that in her jumps – which were clean – she also had the ability to savour and embrace the moment to take it to the next level.

Following her mother’s death, an exception was made for Rochette, who was allowed to have Gfeller stay with her in the Athletes’ Village at night.

Gfeller: I was just trying to be there [for her]. She kept [her] emotions inside but at night so much emotion came out. She needed to talk, she spent time on Twitter and Facebook looking at messages people sent.

They had [former Canadian artistic swimmer] Sylvie Fréchette talk to her because she lived something similar [with the suicide of her boyfriend a week] before the [1992 Olympics in Barcelona].

We were trying to do stuff [outside] of training. We had a very close relationship as well. Joannie was able to share everything she wanted – the ups and downs – that she might not have shared with her coach or Wayne [Halliwell].

Two days later, Rochette came out strongly in the free skate with a triple Lutz/double toe/double toe sequence while skating to Samson and Delilah by Saint-Saens, but landed awkwardly on a triple flip, eliciting a groan from the crowd.

Rochette gestures to the sky during her free program in Vancouver on Feb. 25, 2010. (Getty Images) Rochette gestures to the sky during her free program in Vancouver on Feb. 25, 2010. (Getty Images)
 

She quickly regained her composure and dazzled with her spiral sequence. Rochette fought to land her remaining jumps and scored 202.64 points to earn bronze behind Kim Yuna (228.56, breaking her own world record) and Mao Asada (205.50).

Rochette: The long program was not [the performance] I was hoping for. I made two small mistakes and hoped I still had enough [to stay in medal position]. I felt exhausted at the end and felt I had given my all.

Perron: After the first jump I knew [she would medal] with the energy she was letting out and her power. I was confident about that long program.

Milton: I don’t think we can ever underestimate Manon’s contribution. She had to have that certain something. She was also seriously grieving. Her and Thérèse were friends. Hiding her grief was one thing, but she had to also make sure that the thing Joannie needed to count on, the familiarity of what was going to carry her through, didn’t change.

Rochette, left, is embraced by her father, Normand, after winning a bronze medal in figure skating at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver on Feb. 25, 2010. (The Canadian Press) Rochette, left, is embraced by her father, Normand, after winning a bronze medal in figure skating at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver on Feb. 25, 2010. (The Canadian Press)
 

At the end of the long program, Rochette blew kisses to the fans, cupped her hands together, kissed them and looked up to the sky - and her mom.

Perron (crying): That was the hardest moment for me. I was (strong) because I knew I had to be. Her mom was (strong) and (Joannie) needed me to be as strong as her mom.


It was an extraordinary moment, the best skating performance I’ve seen. She really worked hard to get a medal and deserved it. I was really proud of her, and her mom was, too.

Dr. Halliwell: It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.

Gfeller: For Joannie, the two biggest events in her life were the death of her mom and winning an Olympic medal. They happened in the same week and she somehow managed to pull it off.

She was talented and had the physical strength to be a top-level athlete, but her dedication is what made her stand out.

Rochette is presented with her Olympic bronze medal on Feb. 25, 2010. (Reuters) Rochette is presented with her Olympic bronze medal on Feb. 25, 2010. (Reuters)
 

Milton: Tough is as tough does. I don’t think there’s an adjective that can rise to the occasion as much as she did. She wasn’t that far off a silver medal. To get that bronze, and I’ve [covered] a million Olympics, it’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, given the circumstances. Everybody knew the story. You’re watching somebody dealing with grief right in front of you.

There have been many moments figure skating has made me cry, and that night might be at the top of the list. It was so touching.

Then, I had to write like a regular human being and I’m melting inside.

On Feb. 28, it was announced Rochette would carry the Canadian flag into the closing ceremony that evening. Canadian chef de mission Nathalie Lambert said she earned the choice because of her grace and courage under pressure.

Rochette: In the moment I didn’t know if I should do it. So many people had won gold medals and were in a more celebrating mood. At the same time, I felt everyone in Canada carried me [to the medal podium] and I wanted to say thank you and it would be a perfect celebration.

I was able to enjoy every second of that moment and I’m grateful and humbled I was picked as flag-bearer.

On Feb. 28, 2010, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that Rochette was chosen as Canada's flag-bearer for the closing ceremony. (The Canadian Press) On Feb. 28, 2010, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced that Rochette was chosen as Canada's flag-bearer for the closing ceremony. (The Canadian Press)
 

Dr. Halliwell: What a great role model she is for all the young girls going through adversity. You have to have resilience and she showed it in spades – the ability to be resilient, deal with a tough situation and skate to her potential.

On March 15, Rochette withdrew from the figure skating world championships a week early, citing the emotional toll taken by winning Olympic bronze shortly after her mother's death.

Perron: I said, ‘Jo, I think it’s enough. It’s time to rest, release your emotions and get on with your life. Do some [professional skating] shows.’ She achieved something not a lot people could achieve.

Rochette retired from international skating in 2010. While she chose not to compete four years later at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Rochette worked the event for CBC as a commentator with French-language Radio-Canada.

In October 2018, she enrolled in medical school at McGill University in Montreal and by April 2020 fulfilled a lifelong dream, receiving her medical degree.

Rochette: Skating in Vancouver opened a lot of doors, with [skating] shows, working with the Heart and Stroke Foundation, sponsors, and doing a bit of TV work. I remember when I was doing shows I was tired of travelling, being in that world and wanted to settle in Montreal.

The first year of school was a big year to get used to a different life – not moving as much, not much exercising, not travelling. I do miss my skating years, the shows and the friendships.

I realized life is so short and needed to be making the most out of it. I [was] 24 and if I die at my mom’s age, I probably have 30 years left, so it’s not that much.

My vision of life changed a little bit at that moment.

 

A teary-eyed Rochette is shown following the medal presentations. Vancouver 2010 marked her final Games as a competitor. (Getty Images) A teary-eyed Rochette is shown following the medal presentations. Vancouver 2010 marked her final Games as a competitor. (Getty Images)

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