VANCOUVER — For 40 minutes at least, Joannie Rochette found solace in the soft crunch of her leather boots and the crackle of the ice breaking beneath her blades.
The Canadian figure skater wiped away tears, took a deep breath and then stepped on the Pacific Coliseum ice Sunday, seven hours after receiving the devastating news that her mother and No. 1 fan, Therese Rochette, had died overnight in Vancouver.
The 24-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Que., decided to compete as planned in the Olympics, and sought comfort in the place she knows the best — the rink.
“For Joannie, I think being able to stick with her plan of practising and competing is giving her some stability and some things that are planned in her life, which obviously is otherwise a very uncertain time for her,” William Thompson, Skate Canada’s CEO, said after Rochette’s practice. “To be honest, I wasn’t surprised to see her training well, she’s a very well-trained high performance athlete and the muscle memory kicks in and she does what she needs to do.”
Rochette, the reigning world silver medallist and a threat for a medal in Vancouver, was the last of five skaters on the ice for Sunday’s practice. Dressed in black tights and a coral tank top, her blond hair pulled up into a ponytail, she flashed a quick smile and a wave up to her father Normand, who sat in the stands surrounded by five family friends, who dabbed at tears throughout most of the session.
With a couple dozen camera lenses following her, Rochette had a strong practice, falling once but otherwise landing all her jumps, and executing her spins with her usual elegance. She struggled to fend off tears several times. Rochette stopped once during her run through of her short program — a sultry tango to “La Cumparsita” — gliding around the boards and past coach Manon Perron, who offered a smile and words of encouragement.
Rochette, known as a consummate pro and fierce competitor, finished her program to applause from the few dozen volunteers and journalists watching.
“Joannie is a strong athlete and she demonstrated a lot of control,” said Benoit Lavoie, Skate Canada’s president. “She had a reaction like anybody would have (when delivered the news Sunday morning), and we could see in her again how strong she is.
“What amazed me the most is she remained composed and you had the feeling she was going back to her Olympic mode, trying to cope as well as she could with the situation.”
Rochette’s mother had a massive heart attack after arriving in Vancouver on Saturday, said Rochette’s agent David Baden. She collapsed and was taken to Vancouver General Hospital where she died overnight. She was 55.
While Rochette plans to compete here — the short program is Tuesday — Lavoie and Thompson said they would support the skater is she decided to pull out.
The skater didn’t have the chance to see her mom since her parents landed in Vancouver. Rochette’s Twitter posting Saturday evening said simply: “Bonne nuit a tous!” Goodnight everyone.
Rochette planned to remain in the athletes village, but move from the room she shared with ice dancer Tessa Virtue into a private suite. Her sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell will work with Rochette, and she planned to meet with former synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette, an athletes services officer with the Canadian Olympic team whose fiance Sylvain Lake committed suicide a week before Frechette competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“When I heard the news this morning, it brought me back to 17 years ago,” said Frechette, who greeted Rochette with a hug Sunday morning. “Joannie has to hold onto something. I’m sure she feels right now like the only thing she has left is skating. With me, I was in a state of shock for the first 24 hours, and all I wanted was to feel alive.”
Rochette’s fellow skaters expressed sadness.
“It’s horrible,” said Canadian Cynthia Phaneuf, who practised with Rochette on Sunday. “There’s nothing more hurting than losing your mom, this is when you learn how important your family is and Joannie is a very courageous person and just to be there this morning at the practice, I was very impressed. She’s just so strong.”
“I just heard before I got to practice,” added South Korean Kim Yu-Na, the overwhelming favourite for gold in the women’s competition. “I really felt sorry, I hope she gets through it well, and gets back soon.”
The outpouring of support from the Olympic community has been overwhelming, said Thompson, who received a call Sunday morning from Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, offering his condolences.
“I really appreciated that,” Thompson said. “It’s not just the figure skating family, it’s the entire Olympic family that’s thrown its support behind Joannie, that means a lot to us.”
The news came just over a week after a Georgian luger was killed during a training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre only hours before the opening ceremonies.
News of the death was released prior to a Canadian team briefing Sunday. Officials say Rochette’s father Normand went to the athletes village Sunday morning to deliver the news. They waited until 6 a.m. to inform Rochette because her roommate Virtue was competing Sunday evening.
Liz Manley, a silver medallist at the 1988 Olympics, has been serving as somewhat of a mentor to Rochette in recent months. She told CTV she understood Rochette’s wish to keep skating. “It’s not about a medal now for Joannie,” said Manley, who lost her mother in July 2008. “It is about doing something that she has worked an entire lifetime for, something that her mom was at her side every step of the way. And to not follow through with that right now, I know what she’s thinking. She’s going to go out there and do it for the love of her mom and for her years of hard work.”
VANOC officials noted the death at their daily briefing.
“On behalf of the organizing committee for the Games, of our thousands of employees, volunteers and our partners, we offer our deepest condolences to Joannie and to the family and friends of the Rochettes,” said VANOC spokesman Renee Smith-Valade.
“We’ve been informed the Joannie will continue to compete in the Games this week and we salute her courage and strength at this very difficult time,” she added.
Rochette’s website notes the role her mother has played in her skating career.
“Therese is the most faithful and most committed supporter of the accomplishments Joannie has had and will continue to have. For Joannie, her mother remains her most critical source to date, pushing her to her full potential.”
Rochette’s silver at the world championship was the first for a Canadian woman since Manley in 1988, the year Manley also won silver at the Calgary Olympics.
Rochette grew up in the tiny island community of Ile-Dupas, Que., which sits midway between Montreal and Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River.
Her dad, a kid’s hockey coach, first took her skating at the age of four. Her mom quickly took over driving duties, ferrying her to and from practice.
Rochette quickly rose up the ranks, winning the Canadian novice and junior titles in back-to-back years. She captured bronze in her senior national debut, and claimed her first Canadian crown in 2005.
The five-foot-two Rochette, one of just four members of the Vancouver team with Olympic experience, is competing in her second Games, roaring back from a ninth-place result in the short program at the 2006 Turin Olympics to finish fifth overall.
The athletic yet elegant skater has had a difficult season. She finished third at the season-opening Grand Prix in China, clawing back from a poor performance in her short program. She won Skate Canada but with a far-from-flawless performance, and then struggled to a fifth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final in Japan.
In London, Ont., at the national championships, she sailed through her long program, a sensual number to “Samson and Delilah” by Charles Camille Saint-Saens, virtually without a flaw, pumping both fists in the air in jubilation.
“Definitely it’s saying that I’m ready, I’m back,” Rochette said that day. “It’s the second part of my season and I’m starting with a new wind. That feels really good.”
The turnaround in her season came after she decided to scale back on everything but training.
“One of my goals was to get to Vancouver and know that I did everything I could and have no regrets,” she explained. “So at Christmas, I stayed home, trained, said no to everything.
“It’s like a cycle, the better you skate the more confidence you get and the more confidence you get the better you skate.”