Rochette quietly famous

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:28 AM ET

Joannie Rochette squirms at the mere suggestion of it, her small-town upbringing making the thought almost impossible to accept.

Famous? Who, me?

"You never really think about it, but you see it and it's there," the reigning Canadian women's figure skating champion says about the celebrity status thrust upon her in the past year. "I don't know how to explain it ... it's a weird feeling."

In the wake of her astonishing free skate at last year's Canadian championships in London, Rochette saw her face plastered all over front pages of newspapers across the country. She was recently featured on the cover of International Figure Skating Magazine with her good friend, Canadian men's champ Jeffrey Buttle.

All because of the four minutes of power and magic she weaved that Friday night at the John Labatt Centre. While skating insiders have been aware of Rochette's potential for several years, that free skate was a major coming out party of sorts in front of a nation that wasn't so familiar with the unassuming 19-year-old from tiny Ile-Dupas, Que.

LONDON CALLING

A year later, the memory still remains fresh.

"I don't think I've ever seen a better women's performance than what she showed in London," said CTV/TSN analyst Debbi Wilkes, a keen observer of the sport. "That absolutely bowled me over ... it was in a class by itself.

"If Joannie was on her game at worlds last year the way she was in London ..."

Ah, yes, if only. Truth be told, though, Rochette's tank was running on empty when she arrived at the 2005 Moscow worlds -- she finished a disappointing 11th -- partly drained by the intense media frenzy in her home province following the triumph in London.

In other words, it was the perfect dress rehearsal for what she'll face as defending Canadian champ this week at the Civic Centre. And the Turin Olympics to follow.

"Last year, I felt a lot more pressure between nationals and worlds, so I kind of know how people are going to be (this week)," said Rochette, a bright, introspective young woman. "I'm just trying not to think about (defending her title). I want to skate well, have fun and see all my friends again at nationals."

Nobody likely remembers it, but Rochette made her Canadians debut seven years ago in the nation's capital. She arrived at the 1999 nationals with nothing better than a double Axel in her arsenal, and finished 15th in a field of 16 novice women.

It is the anomaly on her resume at this event, the only time she didn't stand on the podium at the end of the competition.

Rochette calls it much more than that.

"I remember it was a big turning point in my career," she says now. "That's actually when I changed coaches because I had a terrible skate here. It was a good experience, though, to see all the other skaters. After that year, I grew up a lot.

"It's probably part of the reason I won (novice) the next year (in Calgary)."

Unhappy with the 1999 result, Rochette and Nathalie Riquier, her first coach in Berthierville, Que., decided someone else had to guide her future. That turned out to be Manon Perron, who had seen Rochette at seminars at her club in nearby Trois- Rivieres and noticed the raw talent in the energetic 12-year-old. Talent, Perron said, that Rochette hardly knew she possessed.

"She had no clue," said Perron, now based in St-Leonard, Que. "At that time, she was good. She had no triples but a lot of talent."

Even today, with all her accomplishments -- she's the first Canadian woman to wear the senior, junior and novice women's crowns -- Perron doesn't think Rochette quite fathoms how good she can be. They are currently working on triple lutz-triple toe combinations, though Perron said it isn't ready for her programs this week.

INTROVERTED NATURE

"She's more confident now," said Perron. "But I still don't think she understands how talented she is."

Perhaps, again, it goes back to her introverted nature. She is a wonder to watch, yet never boasts about her accomplishments. Her choreographer, David Wilson, believes it is a big part of Rochette's charm.

"There is an innocence and shyness about Joannie that's actually quite powerful," said Wilson, who has worked with her for four seasons now. "It's been fun holding up a mirror in front of her and helping her realize what her true potential is.

"She's an incredibly talented girl, but she's also an incredibly sensitive person."

What's also very clear is that she has grown immensely in the past year. Perron knew that for sure in May, when Rochette asked if she would coach her again. The two had parted ways in October 2004 after a disagreement about her coaching methods, and Rochette worked last season with Josee Normand and Sebastien Britten.

"She knew just calling her was hard for me ... we're both proud people, with really strong character," said Rochette. "She said that I was a different person. But she changed, too. Before, it was like a young girl relationship (between us). Now, she realizes that I have grown into a woman, and she treats me differently. She doesn't act like I'm a child anymore."

Said Perron: "I thought she would have made her mom (call me) for her. When she did it herself, I thought 'she understands. She knows what she has to do.' I don't have to tell her what to do anymore."

Rochette is now certain she's in the right place for her run at the Olympics.

"I've realized I just like working with Manon," Rochette said of the woman she looks upon as a second mother. "The question was, who did I want beside the boards, who did I want to go with me to competitions and share the moment of my life? I see her more than my own parents. So that's why I went back to Manon."

The question now isn't whether she will retain her Canadian title -- Rochette should win rather handily this week. Rather, it is time to consider how she will fare against the planet's elite in Turin, and at the world championships to follow.

Wilson, for one, is convinced she is destined for greatness.

"The last two years, people have been starting to look at her as an actual threat," he said. "She's a real strong medal threat (at the world level). If not this year, than inevitably in the next couple of years."

Think of how much more celebrity that will bring her. Maybe Rochette just might get used to it by then.

THE FACTS OUR MEDAL PICKS

- Event: Senior women

- When to watch: Qualifying -- Today, 1 p.m.; Short program -- Thursday, 3:45 p.m.; Free program -- Friday, 6:45 p.m.

- TV: Thursday -- 7-10 p.m., TSN; Friday -- 7-10 p.m., TSN

- Defending champion: Joannie Rochette, Ile-Dupas, Que.

- Olympic/world team berths: Two

- Capital content: Ashton Tessier, Ottawa (Minto).

- Gold -- Joannie Rochette, Ile-Dupas, Que. Defending champ is in a class by herself in this field. She'll use this week as a final tuneup for her Olympic debut in Turin. Watch her growing star rise some more.

- Silver -- Mira Leung, Vancouver. Some thought she should have been second a year ago. With Cynthia Phaneuf out with an injury, it's her golden opportunity to grab second Olympic berth.

- Bronze -- Lesley Hawker, Barrie. At 24, calls herself a classic late bloomer. She'll push hard for a chance to skate on the biggest stage of them all.

- Watch out for: Amanda Billings, Calgary. Fourth a year ago, the diminutive Alberta teen will challenge for the medals. Olympic berth isn't out of the question.


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