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With heavy heart, Rochette takes the practice ice

Canadian champ runs through short despite loss

Joannie Rochette practiced her short program on Sunday, hours after hearing of her mother's passing.
Joannie Rochette practiced her short program on Sunday, hours after hearing of her mother's passing. (Getty Images)

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By Amy Rosewater, special to icenetwork.com
(02/21/2010) - Hours after finding out that her mother had passed away, Joannie Rochette took the ice to practice her short program as planned.

According to Skate Canada officials, Rochette was informed at about 6 a.m. that her mother, Therese, died of a heart attack. Rochette, a six-time Canadian champion and the reigning world silver medalist, was in the Olympic Village when she heard the news from her father, Normand.

Therese died in Vancouver Hospital after suffering a heart attack, but Normand did not want to tell his daughter until later in the morning, in part to let her sleep and also so he would not disturb her roommate, ice dancer Tessa Virtue, who is competing in the original dance on Sunday.

"It really put things into perspective," said Virtue. "It was a tough day for everyone. She has had to go through a hard time, and I am here for whatever she needs."

Rochette surprised many when she set foot on the ice just moments after her scheduled 1:15 p.m. practice had begun. Wearing black tights, a peach tank top and a black sweatshirt, Rochette plowed through her triples.

Rochette, who placed fifth at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, still plans to compete in these Games in Vancouver. The women's event is the last of the skating competitions in these Games, and the women's short program is Tuesday, Rochette will skate first in the last group of ladies. The free skate is Thursday.

Neither she nor her longtime coach Manon Perron spoke with reporters after the practice, but her presence spoke volumes.

Rochette was the last skater to practice her run through, and when her music ended, Dick Button, who was in the stands watching, applauded.

"Good for her,'' said Button, the two-time Olympic gold medalist. "Good for her.''

It didn't matter much that she didn't attempt every element in the run-through of her short program. Just being on the ice was more than enough.

"Yes, I was surprised [to see her skate],'' said Cynthia Phaneuf, who also represents Canada and was on the same practice session as Rochette. "But I think she is doing the right thing. It shows how strong she is.''

Benoit Lavoie, the president of Skate Canada, said he was impressed by how much "control'' Rochette displayed considering the circumstances.

"You can see how strong she is'' Lavoie said.

Rochette, an only child, grew up in the tiny Quebec town of Ile Dupas. She has trained with Perron since she was a teenager. Brian Orser, the two-time Olympic silver medalist and coach, toured with Rochette and got to know her mother well.

"Her skating mom is her coach'' Orser said. "Her mother was the supportive mom.''

Rochette's parents had arrived in Vancouver on Saturday along with some close friends from Ile Dupas. Those friends joined Normand to watch practice.

Rochette seemed to be enjoying her time in Vancouver up until this tragedy struck. She marched in the Opening Ceremony and was staying in the Olympic Village. She was even giddy about getting her photo taken with U.S. Olympic snowboarding gold medalist Shaun White.

"In 2006, I felt like I was a kid working in a candy store,'' Rochette said earlier this week. "I feel like it's bringing back, like I'm a kid again.''

Now, in the face of tragedy, she's decided to perform on the biggest stage of her career with a heavy heart.

"I can't imagine what Joannie is going through,'' Orser said. "I know she'll find the strength from her friends on the team and from Manon and from her millions of fans.''

As shocking as the news was, Orser said he was glad to hear that Rochette still will skate.

"I'm proud of her continuing to compete,'' Orser said. "She'll be skating for the right reasons.''

When asked how a coach could help a skater in this situation, Orser said, "I don't think you prepare for anything like that, but Manon and Joannie have a very tight bond, and together, they will get through this.''

When the moment arrives for Rochette to take the ice on Tuesday, there is no doubt the Canadian fans will show their support.

"Oh my gosh'' Orser said. "I'll be a mess.''

For coach Robin Wagner and her skater, Elene Gedevanishvili, these Games have already been emotional. Gedevanishvilli represents the republic of Georgia, and although she did not know Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luger who was killed, the team is small enough that it has it has made quite an impact.

Wagner and Gedevanishvili were eating dinner in the Olympic Village last night, and they saw Rochette there. They learned the news of Rochette's mother's death this morning.

"My heart goes out to her,'' Wagner said.

Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches U.S. champion Rachael Flatt, said he was alerted of the news shortly before Flatt took the ice for practice. Flatt, however, was stunned when reporters informed her.

"Oh my gosh,'' said Flatt as she looked at Zakrajsek in shock. "I feel so bad for her. It's really unfortunate. That's really hard. I can't imagine losing your mother, let alone being at the Olympics.''

Unfortunately for Rochette, she will have to experience both the loss of her mother and competing in the Olympics in the same week.

"It's not about a medal anymore,'' said David Baden, Rochette's agent with IMG. "It's about fulfilling the goal that she shared with her mother.''