Golden dreams

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:18 PM ET

She smiles at the memory of her first cautious steps across a frozen patch of ice. "I couldn't skate. I was just walking fast," Joannie Rochette says in recalling the day her father, Normand, slipped a pair of double-runner blades on the tiny feet of his only child.

Rochette wasn't yet five years old when her father, a hockey coach at the time, took her to the Centre Gilles-Villeneuve, the arena named after the revered auto racing legend from Berthierville, Que.

But perhaps it was an omen, that this was where it all began. Where a champion figure skater whose speed on the ice is now one of her best assets -- some in the media have taken to calling her 'Rocket' Rochette -- emerged from such humble beginnings.

Today, as the 2005 world figure skating championships beckon in Moscow, Rochette hears the giddy talk, that she might be the one to end Canada's 17-year absence from the women's podium at the global competition.

And, almost instinctively, she puts the brakes on it.

"Even people at home are saying that," said Rochette, 19, the charming, petite Canadian champion. "It just makes me laugh. It's not the goal this year.

"I'm not saying I don't want to win, but I don't want to put pressure on myself (that way). I want to take it step by step."

Nobody, at least in the Canadian skating community, will be shocked this week if Rochette takes a mighty leap much closer to the silver medal Ottawa's Elizabeth Manley won in Budapest in 1988. While she talks modestly of aiming for a top-six finish -- she was eighth at last year's worlds in Dortmund, Germany, a gain of nine spots over 2003 -- her performance at the Canadian championships suggests more is possible.

MAGICAL PERFORMANCE

On a magical Friday night in January at the John Labatt Centre in London, Rochette unleashed what has been widely hailed as perhaps the greatest women's free skate in the event's history. She landed seven clean triple jumps and made it look almost effortless, all the while captivating the audience with an exquisite display of skating beauty to Stravinsky's The Firebird.

The score she earned (123.12) was the third-highest since the International Skating Union's code of points system was first employed last season. Rochette's two-program total (183.93) stands as a world-best this season.

"Her program is very intricate," said Gayle McClelland, Skate Canada's chief athlete development officer. "The program she and David (Wilson, her choreographer) put together completely addresses all the program components (of the new system). She certainly excels at them."

But Rochette is so unassuming that many students at College Andre-Grasset in Montreal, where she is studying natural sciences, weren't aware of her rising status in the sport until her exploits in London were detailed in the school's newspaper.

"A lot of them didn't know about my skating," said Rochette, who became a media darling in Montreal after her triumph. "Now everyone's saying, 'You're that figure skater.' "

VILLAGE UPBRINGING

Perhaps that modesty speaks to her upbringing in Ile-Dupas, the mainly French-speaking village of about 500 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River where she was raised. It is a one-hour drive east of Montreal, a trip Rochette frequently makes on weekends to visit her parents.

There is no arena on the island, so Berthierville (10 minutes away) became the launching point for Rochette's figure skating ambitions.

Her mother, Therese, saw it almost from the point her daughter took up the sport as a six-year-old.

"My friends were skating, too, and I wanted to do something with them," said Rochette. "I was always very competitive with my friends ... my mom knew already then that I wanted to do this more seriously."

Eventually, it meant a move to Trois-Rivieres at 13, when Manon Perron took over the guiding reins from Nathalie Riquier, Rochette's first coach in Berthierville. Within the first year with Perron, Rochette had mastered four triple jumps.

The Quebec skating federation sent her off to her first international competition in the Netherlands that same year, which opened her eyes to a wider world.

"I really loved the travelling," she said. "When I got home, I said 'I'm going to work even harder to get another one.'

"This was my motivation."

Three years later, Rochette followed her coach to Montreal when Perron's husband got a job transfer. She began boarding with a couple in Anjou, the French part of Montreal island. It's still her home away from home today.

Rochette has been stamped for greatness since she won back-to-back Canadian titles in 2000 (novice) and 2001 (junior). Now, with the triple crown complete and in such impressive fashion, it is easy to see her achieving more on the world or even Olympic stage, with the Turin Games just 11 months away.

Especially in the wake of her bronze-medal finish at the Grand Prix final in China in December -- an amazing feat, given that Rochette had endured an emotional breakup with Perron just two months before.

But the switch to coaches Josee Normand and Sebastien Britten has brought out a new level of maturity in Rochette. She has complete confidence in all of her jumps, and better control of her nerves.

"She used to let her temper be affected by small things," said Britten, the 1995 Canadian men's champion, who once had the same problem himself. "We're teaching her to leave those small things behind."

CONFIDENCE GROWS

Said Rochette: "I watched some of the other competitors on the Grand Prix circuit this year, and I thought they had a more confident attitude than me. I thought if I wanted to win, I had to have this attitude, too."

And while Rochette downplays the big talk about Moscow and the opportunity now in front of her, make no mistake about this. The young girl who was inspired by Oksana Baiul's Olympic triumph in 1994 wants the same thing for herself someday, and has the goods to get there.

"She knows what she wants," said Britten.

"She wants to be the best."

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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