It was late; 11 p.m. had come and gone, and Joannie Rochette, the bronze medal around her neck, was still lingering at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum, talking about the sudden death of her mother Thérèse. “It feels good for me to talk about it,” she said. An empty arena can be a chill and spooky place, but for Rochette, any rink echoes with memories of home. The audience of almost 12,000, at turns boisterous and weepy, had long since filed out, doubly blessed by two moments of Olympic magic.
First, they had witnessed four minutes of near perfection in the gold-medal skate of Korea’s Yu-Na Kim, the 19-year-old prodigy coached by Brian Orser, one of the finest male skaters Canada has produced. It was fluid and strong and so self-assured that even those unschooled in the intricacies of the sport could see Kim operated at a different level. As the last strains of Gershwin’s Concerto in F faded, and the crowd roared, Kim surprised even herself: she started to cry.
Later, the 19-year-old Kim seemed almost embarrassed by this weakness. She never cries, she said. “Watching previous figure skaters, I always wondered why they cried after their performance,” she says. “I’m really happy. I don’t know why I cried.”
If Kim’s tears were a surprise, so too was the calm, collected demeanour of 24-year-old Rochette. Many tears had been shed in the four days since Thérèse Rochette, just 55, died of a heart attack early on Sunday, Feb. 21, hours after arriving in Vancouver with her husband, Normand, to watch Joannie skate. The days since were filled with grief and turmoil and just the faintest flickers of doubt. Could she skate? Should she skate? Should she return with her father to tiny Île Dupas, Que., to bury her mother?
Neither the audience, nor, perhaps, Rochette herself knew what to expect when she took to the ice for her long program. A phenomenal skate in her short program put her in third place, but did she have it in her to repeat that performance? What they got was the persona she calls “Joannie the athlete.” She wore a pretty turquoise costume, studded with intricate beadwork. Her blond hair was swept up tight, held with an elaborate gold-metal clasp. Somewhere deep inside, emotions were bound even tighter; she was a warrior in perfect makeup.
This is what her mother, an unrelenting perfectionist, had prepared her for. This was their “lifetime project,” as Joannie later put it. This was a long program she knew so well, skated to the operatic Samson and Delilah by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. “I was so ready coming here, and thank God for that,” she said. “I could rely on my training. I could rely on my instincts and let my body do what it has to do.”
Joannie the athlete delivered a strong performance, though not without glitches. She stepped out of her landing on a triple flip and she dropped a second double axel. Still, it was a well-executed, challenging program, one that fell just short of the silver medal.
Flowers and stuffed dolls rained down. Rochette scooped up a tiny mascot, smiled and waved it to the crowd. Young girls from local skating clubs swept across the ice gathering the rest by the armful. One hopes they appreciated what they saw; that they have mothers to advise them to treasure this memory, and all the courage it represents.