Rochette's in charge

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:38 AM ET

LONDON, Ont. -- Joannie Rochette knew that this was the night, the test that separates the best from the rest.

The stuff of which champions are made.

Officially, they won't crown a senior women's champ at the Canadian figure skating championships until tonight at the John Labatt Centre. But Rochette, a charming yet intense 19-year-old from Ile Dupas, Que., served notice last night that she is ready.

That her time to be a Canadian champion is at hand.

Perhaps that's why she punched the air so emphatically, and smiled that bright smile of hers so widely as the rumble of the standing ovation enveloped her.

This time, the short program didn't get her. She got it. And about as close to perfectly as it gets.

"Last year didn't go so well," said Rochette, recalling the botched short program at the 2004 nationals in Edmonton that essentially cost her the Canadian title. "I missed two elements. It was still in my mind that last year, I lost because of that.

"It made the program twice as stressful as normal. It's the best I've ever done under that much pressure."

Oh, did she ever. A crisp triple lutz-double toe combination was the highlight, placed squarely in between her double Axel and triple flip. When the lutz went down solidly, Rochette was on her way.

"Last year, I came here without a consistent triple lutz and I don't think you can win a national championship without one," she said. "This year, I can do them more consistently."

The only scary moment? Rochette got back on her heel at the end of a footwork sequence and almost tumbled over. But she didn't panic.

"The crowd started to laugh," she said. "It relaxed me."

Said coach Sebastien Britten: "It was a very, very intense performance. She was pushing much harder than she usually does, it's why she lost her balance a bit on the footwork."

LEADS PHANEUF

Rochette earned a score of 60.81 points, and her 88.16 total after two phases of the competition put her 9.98 points in front of defending champion Cynthia Phaneuf.

While Phaneuf didn't display the case of nerves that hampered her during Monday's qualifying, she did have a stumble on her triple lutz. That was the difference maker.

"I did a little mistake, (Rochette) did it clean," said Phaneuf, 17, of Sorel-Tracy, Que. "That explains everything."

Coach Annie Barabe liked seeing the smile return to her skater's face.

"She didn't have the (fear) she had in her face. She was having more fun," said Barabe.

"(Last night) was not perfect. There is a lot of pressure on her being Canadian champion, but she managed it pretty well."

Two Barrie-based skaters, Lesley Hawker (66.00) and Meagan Duhamel (64.26) head the battle for the bronze.

Hawker, a waitress at Jack Astor's, is a classic late bloomer at 23 with an infectious grin.

"I'm ready to kick a little butt," she said. "I'm excited."

Ashton Tessier of the Minto Skating Club stands 16th.

But tonight, all eyes will be on Rochette and the stars seemed aligned so right for her.

"I want to win. I came here to win," said Rochette, her words backing up the supreme confidence she showed on the ice. "So maybe I'm a bit more nervous than last year, because last year I just wanted to make the world team.

"This is a bit different because I know it's possible for me to win."


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