Grief carries Canadian figure skater Rochette

Figure skater Joannie Rochette (right) hugs coach Manon Perron after competing in short program.
Figure skater Joannie Rochette (right) hugs coach Manon Perron after competing in short program.
Posted: February 24, 2010

VANCOUVER - She finally took the ice last night, 3 nights after her mother's sudden death ripped through her Olympic focus, 1 night after her countrymen, fellow skaters Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, gave Canadians a needed infusion of national pride with their gold-medal performance in ice dance.

And so there she was, finally, at 8:20 Pacific time, Canada's Joannie Rochette, her personal tragedy a wake-up call to a nation in danger of making a mountain out of their molehill medal count, her performance a new thing to fixate on, to fret even, to celebrate hopefully.

Canada had the Olympics. Now it had, arguably, its most compelling story line, as well.

Therese Rochette, 55, suffered a heart attack and died early Sunday morning in Vancouver General Hospital. She had traveled from Quebec to see her daughter skate. Now what? The decision was made quickly, completely. She would skate her short program, or at least attempt to.

"She might do her practice," Skate Canada president Benoit Lavoie said. "She might do the warmup. She could come up maybe 1 minute before the program and make another decision not to skate. No problem. It will be her decision."

When she touched the ice, the crowd rose and roared. There was a hint of acknowledgement at first, but Rochette remained mostly stoic, focused on practicing the jumps, maybe focused on getting through it, as well.

When she landed her first series of jumps, a hint of a smile crossed her lips. The second set, more of the same, her confidence building as the crowd broke into a rhythmic clap to her music, which she wore painfully on her face. This was more than Canada's story now. The world watching was a raw nerve, too.

When she was through, when the music stopped and the crowd at Pacific Coliseum rose again, she let it go, let the tears flow, let the sadness and exhaustion of the last days wash over her. Her coach embraced her. And in between bursts of new tears, she finally spoke, in French, touching her heart repeatedly as she repeated a universally familiar word.

"Mama," she said again and again, connecting an entire planet in a way no competiton has ever been able to do.

"My roommate Alena Leonova and I were just baffled at how she is even able to skate tonight," Russia's Ksenia Makarova said. "It wasn't her grandmother. It wasn't her aunt.

"It was her mother."

Her score of 71.36 put her in third place heading into tomorrow's long-program final. She is well within winning a medal, even a gold. She just has to hold it together again as she did last night, but longer. Oh, and skate flawlessly.

This is an odd Winter Olympics for Americans accustomed to having at least one medal contender. The last time an Olympic ladies podium was without an American was in 1964, after a 1961 plane crash took the lives of the entire world team on the way to an event.

Mirai Nagasu, who captured the 2008 U.S. national title as a 78-pound 14-year-old, wowed the crowd with a dazzling array of spins that left her with a nosebleed during the routine.

"Halfway there, I felt stuff running down my nose and thinking, 'Don't think about it, just keep going,' " she said. "I'm just happy that in my first Olympics, I didn't fall yet."

Nagasu's score of 63.76 gave her the lead after 11 skaters, a lead that held until the final two groupings of five skaters. She sits in sixth place.

The first of the final two groups included gold-medal favorite Kim Yu-Na, of South Korea, who ended the evening in first place. The reigning world champion, she has not lost a competition in more than a year.

The second group included Rochette and reigning U.S. champion Rachael Flatt. Flatt skated after Rochette, did as well as any 17-year-old could be expected to do in that spot, finishing in fifth. When it was over, the two American teenagers had acquitted themselves well, had placed within the top pack.

On another night, it was a nice story, but on this one, it was barely a footnote. Joannie Rochette had channeled her sadness into her art, had channeled her pain through every watching eye and produced something special. It wasn't golden, for gold is of this earth. This was something much more. *

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