Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rochette's grace earns glory

Figure skater overcomes mother's death to win bronze

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VANCOUVER -- Joannie Rochette skated to the music from Samson and Delilah, a herculean tale of triumph and tragedy, but the story was all hers, its most poignant final line mercifully carved into a piece of bronze.

It is but one of 17 Canadian medals and to suggest it dwarfs so many cast in silver and gold at these Games would seem to miss the incredible sporting spirit and human will Rochette showed to win it against the worst of odds. Because she wasn't thinking of herself when she won it, we all know that.

That medal is for her mother Therese, who arrived from Montreal Saturday and died Sunday in a Vancouver hospital, before she could see her daughter as a 2010 Olympian.

But the thing is, the woman who wore that medal Thursday night with and what it will tell the world about her for the rest of her life makes it seem more valuable than others won here, if not to Rochette, then the country. The silver medal she claimed at the world championships in 2009 -- the kind that always comes complete with palpable pressure especially before a home Olympics -- sits in a place of prominence in her home. This one occupies a special place in the hearts of all Canadians who have been thinking about her since Sunday.

She won it almost clinically, her face devoid of the emotion that was so easily read in Tuesday's short program. She wobbled early, dropped a double Axel late and was in competition mode throughout for a free skate score of 131.28 and a two-skate total of 202.64.

The crowd scattered plush toys on the ice and most stood to applaud her one more time.

"I feel proud. The result didn't matter but I'm happy to be on the podium," said Rochette. "That was my goal coming here. It's been a lifetime project with my mom and we achieved that."

They were there all along. Her support group tightened up to include father Normand, boyfriend Guillaume Gfeller, coach Manon Perron and psychologist Wayne Halliwell, so Canadians gave her whatever comfort they could from afar. But let's face it, we all took something from Rochette's impossible strength and desire to compete too. There was inspiration, certainly. National pride. Borrowed courage in some cases. And when it came time for her to compete, there was relief and joy at the sight of her standing upright and in third place after an excruciating and emotional short program on Tuesday.

And the first thing she said was a thank you to Canadians for emails and text messages that helped get her through the toughest days? Wow. That's quite a kid her parents Therese and Normand raised in Ile Dupas, Que.

The 24-year-old took other Olympians and millions of Canadians on a journey so personal and filled with sorrow that even to watch it from a respectable distance in the rink or on TV occasionally seemed too intrusive. Well, after four minutes that stopped the Olympics on Thursday, we can all breathe again. Rochette included.

Sure, Korea's Yu-Na Kim has the gold medal, the first in women's skating for her country, and that is worth celebrating. Her blend of poise and power, grace and guts might just rule the ladies division for another four years. Unless Japan's Mao Asada has more to say about it in the coming seasons than she did on Thursday, her jumping might muted by a strange mistake that jabbed her toe pick in the ice and threw off her timing so badly she popped a triple toe. She threw two triple Axels at Kim and the judges but there is something missing from her delivery and that left a 23-point chasm between her and Kim.

And behind them, three points back of Asada, was Rochette.

After skating "like a computer" through the short program -- that was teammate Cynthia Phaneuf's assessment of Rochette's self-defence mechanism -- the Rocket locked her emotions away for another four minutes and leaped through her long program. Only Rochette and three other competitors in the field of 24 laced their programs with seven triples, a number that was a source of pride for her all year because it proved how versatile a skater she had become. Sure, some girls do the triple-triple that Rochette eschews, but some only have five triples in the quiver.

In between the tricks she massaged the Code of Points scoring system for a fine haul of component scores rewarding skating skills, choreography, interpretation, footwork and transitions, performance and execution.

Thirty women skated the long, only 24 passed through to the final with one more chance to shape their Olympic experience the way it looked in the dream. They all have it. It's set to soundtracks in Finnish, Russian, English, Japanese and Korean, and its base value is the same all over, medal-worthy. Sadly, the grade of execution varies from dreams in the athletes village to reality on the Pacific Coliseum ice.

In skating, the best are often left for last. Rochette skated 23rd. Only Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. could take the medal away and she fell short. Rochette became the fifth Olympic medal winner for Canada in the ladies division.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2010 C2

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