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Canada celebrates one-year countdown to Olympics

Country prepares from coast-to-coast for Games that are now one year away

Joannie Rochette was the figure skating rep on this week's Olympic countdown teleconference.
Joannie Rochette was the figure skating rep on this week's Olympic countdown teleconference. (Getty Images)

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By Laurie Nealin, special to icenetwork.com
(02/12/2009) - One year from today, on Friday, February 12, 2010, some 5,500 athletes from over 80 countries will march into B.C. Place Stadium, and the torch will be lit to signal the start of the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Today, the Vancouver Organizing Committee has asked Canadians from Newfoundland to British Columbia to make noise at 6:00 p.m. local time to kick off the one-year countdown to the Games.

"That's so cool. We'll just maybe have to cross the [Canadian-U.S.] border to Windsor and yell a little bit," said Canadian ice dance champion Tessa Virtue, who usually spends her days training in Michigan with partner Scott Moir.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, in B.C. for the celebrations, will help start the countdown clock and issue the official invitation to the world's youth to come together in Vancouver in one year's time.

In Ottawa, the nation's capital, the Olympic flag will be raised on Parliament Hill as the bells in the Peace Tower ring. In Calgary, home to the 1988 Winter Olympics, the torch from those Games will be used to relight the Olympic cauldron there. In cities and towns across the country, Olympic fever will begin to build.

Canadian sports officials, through the Own the Podium program, have set the bar high for its athletes, challenging them to win the most medals of any country at the 2010 Games. In 2006, Canada finished third in total medals behind Germany and the United States.

In terms of gold medals, the host country is looking to finish in the top three as well. Canada has the dubious distinction of not having won an Olympic gold medal on home soil; the country has hosted the Games twice before -- in 1976 (summer) and '88. That is not going to happen this time around.

Since 2005, funding to the tune of $120 million has been invested in Canada's elite athletes to ensure they deliver on their potential under the Olympic rings. The former mindset that Canadian athletes should be proud just to compete on the Olympic stage has been tossed out the window. Medals are what matter now.

Figure skaters have been penciled in for four medals -- one in each discipline -- following the successful performances of Patrick Chan, Joannie Rochette, Jessica Dubé and Bryce Davison, and Virtue and Moir last week at the 2009 ISU Four Continents Championships in the Olympic venue in Vancouver.

When Canada last hosted the Games in 1988, figure skaters came up big, winning three of Canada's five medals. Brian Orser and Elizabeth Manley claimed silver in their singles events, while Tracy Wilson and Rob McCall took bronze in ice dance. Orser, Manley and Wilson have all been recruited by Skate Canada to help prepare the country's new generation of Olympians for the potentially stifling pressure that comes with a home-country Games.

In advance of the countdown kick-off, six of Canada's elite athletes -- two speed skaters, two skiers, a hockey player and a figure skater -- spoke with the media via teleconference to share their thoughts on the year ahead and Canada's prospects 12 months from now.

Rochette, fresh off her silver-medal finish at Four Continents, was the figure skater on the call.

"A year from the Olympics, it's not a lot, of course. The year will fly by. It's as if 2006 was yesterday. That was my first games [in Turin], and I was surprised to be in fifth place," Rochette began.

"Since then, the competition has changed a lot, so I had to step it up and improve a lot of my elements. A lot of people retired, and newcomers came, especially Asian girls who could do technical stuff that I couldn't. I had to go back and learn new stuff. It was not an easy thing at 23 years old, which in figure skating is considered to be a very mature age," she explained.

Rochette, the winner of two Grand Prix events this season, also noted that she had made great strides in her mental toughness, particularly in learning how to compete at home. She cited her disappointing seventh-place result at the 2006 World Championships in Calgary as an example of the challenge she had to overcome.

"I learned how to compete in Canada -- how to let it bring out the best in me, how to use the crowd to my advantage. It is really important for me to arrive in Vancouver and feel great, that I don't feel overwhelmed by things. The Olympics in your own country, you have to be really ready for that."

Rochette noted that this season has been her best ever: "It's the first time that I'm not shy to say that I want to land on the podium at worlds and for the Olympics. It's the first time I feel very comfortable with the top girls."

Competing at the Olympic venue last week was "great preparation" for the Games, Rochette said. The fact that the Canadian figure skating team will also have experienced five training camps in the Pacific Coliseum come Games time should also prove invaluable, she noted.

"When we get there during the Olympics, even though the five rings will be standing there, I'll be like I'm skating in my own backyard. It's important to have that feeling going into the Olympics," Rochette concluded.

Despite having won the Canadian title five times, Rochette is not yet well known in Canada. There is little doubt that her profile -- and those of all of Canada's top Olympic medal prospects -- will increase as the countdown continues over the next 365 days.