VANCOUVER — Just days after the death of her mother, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette held it together on the ice and put on a show with a courageous performance in the Olympic women’s short program Tuesday night.
The 24-year-old figure skater from Ile-Dupas, Que., scored a personal best 71.36 points for what had to be the most difficult program of her life. She stands a remarkable third going into Thursday’s long program.
The Canadian fought back tears when her name was announced in the warmup to huge applause, and again when she glided onto the ice.
She broke down the moment her emotional program ended though, and then collapsed into the arms of her longtime coach Manon Perron.
In between, there probably weren’t many dry eyes in the Pacific Coliseum.
In brief comments relayed through Skate Canada high performance director Mike Slipchuk, Rochette said words could not describe how she was feeling.
“Hard to handle, but appreciate the support. Will remember this forever.”
Reigning world champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea scored a world-record 78.50 points to lead the standings. Kim, who lives in Toronto and is coached by Canadian Brian Orser, skated an impeccable program to a James Bond medley that included three triple jumps.
Mao Asada of Japan is second with 73.78 points, attempting and landing the only triple Axel of the night.
Slipchuk called Rochette’s performance remarkable.
“When she took to the ice she looked like the Joannie that we’ve known and have grown with, and she was as good as she’s been all year,” Slipchuk said.
“I think that’s a testament to her that she was able to get herself in the right frame of mine and do a clean short program that you have to do in the Olympic Games.”
Rochette, the reigning world silver medallist and six-time Canadian champion, scored with her sultry tango to La Cumparsita that had the red-and-white crowd clapping in time as if to will the skater along.
“I think her mother gave her wings,” Canadian chef de mission Nathalie Lambert said.
Rochette arrived at the Games as one of the figure skating team’s top threats for a medal here, but her world was turned upside down when her mom died of a massive heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver on Saturday. Therese Rochette was 55.
Skate Canada officials said they would support Rochette if she decided to withdraw from the competition, but she was back on the practice ice seven hours after she was delivered the devastating news, with her father Normand, family friends from Quebec, and her boyfriend and fellow figure skater Guillaume Gfeller sitting in the audience cheering her on.
She remained in the athletes village, where Canadian athletes packed the lounge Tuesday night to cheer on the skater, and spent much of the last couple of days working with her sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell and former synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette, whose fiance committed suicide just days before the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Rochette has received a huge outpouring of support in the wake of her tragedy.
“There have been a lot of well-wishes and cards and articles sent to her and at her pace, she goes through some of them, and has been reading some of the cards,” said Slipchuk. “Everyone, the outpouring from the skating community and the sporting world, they’ve been coming from all sports on the Canadian team, they’ve been coming from other countries, fans, government, family, friends, skating fraternity, pretty much everyone is sending their thoughts and prayers to her during this. People have just been so great.”
Rochette, who finished fifth in her Olympic debut in 2006 in Turin, Italy, could capture Canada’s first women’s singles medal since Elizabeth Manley won silver in 1988 in Calgary. Her silver last March in Los Angeles marked the first world championship medal since Manley won silver the same year as the Calgary Games.
The 19-year-old Kim is the clear favourite for Olympic gold, losing just twice on the Grand Prix circuit over the past two seasons — both of those defeats coming to her rival Asada.
Cynthia Phaneuf of Contrecoeur, Que., was 14th, scoring 57.16 points for her skate to Claude Debussey’s “Nocturne.” She slipped and fell on her step sequence, the only major misstep on an otherwise elegant performance.