Rochette shows her class

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

For Joannie Rochette, yesterday was about revving up the engine.

Bet on her enjoying a smooth drive home from here to a second straight Canadian senior women's figure skating title.

The defending champion admittedly didn't have her best stuff during the senior women's qualifying session yesterday that opened the Canadian championships at the Civic Centre. But already, it's rather obvious she's in a class by herself this week.

Rochette, the petite 19-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Que., only landed four clean triple jumps in her qualifying skate.

But the overall quality of her program, skated to Edith Piaf's Autumn Leaves and Hymn of Love, allowed her to post a score of 105.41 points -- the only one of 38 skaters in the field to crack the century mark.

"I'm not going to lie to you. It wasn't very good," Rochette said after her skate. "I was a bit shaky in the warmup and the whole thing was a reflection of the warmup."

But since skaters only carry 25% of yesterday's score forward to Thursday's short program, Rochette's number is 26.35 and her lead is deceptively slim at the moment. But she and coach Manon Perron know the bigger scores are yet to come.

"She can do a lot better than this," said Perron. "But that's okay, it's just the qualifications. We'll build now for the short program, then the next long (on Friday), then the Olympics."

Make no mistake about it. While Rochette kept using the phrase "if I make it to Turin," it would take a collapse of epic proportions for her not to be there.

'BUILDING CONFIDENCE'

"You never know what can happen," said Perron. "We have a plan to go (to the Olympics), but we don't want to take it as a done deal.

"From here to Turin, it's about building confidence and skating like a champion."

The contenders for the second women's Olympic team berth are lining up as expected.

Mira Leung of Vancouver placed second in Group A behind Rochette with 24.25 points (96.98), while Barrie's Lesley Hawker counted 23.07 (92.26). Both were impressive in landing five triple jumps.

Leung arrived in Ottawa this week with a new free program, skated to Terra-cotta Warriors, a contemporary Chinese musical. Already, she's in love with it.

HAPPY TUNE

"It's like I finally found the program that I didn't even know I was searching for all these years,"said a grinning Leung, 16, who asked coach Joanne McLeod for the change after Skate Canada. "It suits me like a glove."

Hawker, a spunky 24-year-old, showed her move to coach Richard Callaghan's camp in Rochester, Mich., continues to pay dividends.

Olympic dreams? They're out of sight, out of mind -- for now.

"This was a good start," she said. "To be honest, I'm more concerned with having a good week and laying down three good programs. The rest will take care of itself."

Group B, it turned out, was aptly named. Meagan Duhamel won it with 85.99 points, and she'll keep 21.50 of it -- good for fourth overall. Nobody else finished with more than 20 after the 25% split.

Even the group winner was far from pleased.

"I'm not satisfied at all," said Duhamel, 20, of Walden. "That was a very below-average performance for me ... that's the worst I've probably (skated it) in a month."

The top 12 in each group advanced to the short program. Ashton Tessier of the Minto Skating Club is among them after steadying her nerves to finish seventh in Group A and 12th overall.

Then again, she had a pretty handy reminder.

"I had to completely stay calm -- sometimes I get really nervous," said Tessier, 19, of Ottawa, who scored 62.56 points and will carry 15.64 forward. "My coach (Michelle Leigh) and I wrote 'calm' on my wrist ... I think it actually helped."


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