Contenders come up short

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

She tried so hard to put up a brave front, to keep that wonderfully warm smile on her face.

But Lesley Hawker couldn't win the fight. Couldn't quell the bitter disappointment tearing her up inside.

She bit her lip hard, and barely choked out the words.

"This is not about making the Olympics," said Hawker, fighting back the tears that suddenly began to flow. "I'm so much better a skater than that.

"That is not who I am."

The 24-year-old from Barrie might as well have been speaking for an entire field of senior women's skaters at the Canadian figure skating championships for whom the Civic Centre ice seemed just a little too slippery last night. Not a clean program in sight, not even for the reigning queen of them all.

Out of the carnage, though, came one clear thought: Canada's Olympic team in this discipline was essentially chosen last night, though there is still a free-skate final this evening to make it all official.

Defending champion Joannie Rochette won the night with a rather average display -- for her anyways. But her 82.77-point overall total is still nearly eight points clear of Mira Leung, the teen sensation from Vancouver, who put a rather substantial hammerlock on the second ticket to Turin.

With 74.79 points, Leung is 9.9 better than Hawker, who had the most disastrous tumble of them all. After a promising warmup, Hawker doubled the triple lutz part of her combination. It all unravelled from there -- a fall on her triple flip, botched landing on a double Axel. Add it all up and it meant a humbling sixth-place finish in the short program.

Hawker was inconsolable afterward.

"She had a great warmup," said coach Richard Callaghan. "She's very disappointed in herself."

"Another great learning lesson," Hawker said ruefully through her tears. "I'm sure I'll learn a ton from it."

It needs to happen tonight, or she'll fall off the podium. Hawker's lead over fourth-place Meagan Duhamel of Walden is a scant .07 points.

Rochette, who shone so brightly in stealing the show at last year's Canadian championships in London, hasn't looked nearly as sharp this week. She easily won the short program with 56.42 points, but continues to struggle with the double Axel, which left the 19-year-old from Ile-Dupas, Que., puzzled.

"I missed it in qualifying and again (last night)," said Rochette, who also touched a hand down on her triple flip. "It's an easier jump. We're going to have to fix that."

Rochette dazzled spectators in the warmup by ripping off a triple lutz-triple toe combination. But coach Manon Perron told the Sun last week the plan was to save it for the Olympics, and Rochette played it safe when it counted.

With a double on the end, she made the combo look almost effortless.

"We stuck to the plan," said Rochette. "I was happy to do the (triple-triple) in the warmup.

The two mistakes were a shame, because Rochette's short program, skated to Madonna's Like A Prayer, is enchanting. Choreographer David Wilson had to talk Rochette into skating to the instrumental piece, but she's come to love it.

"David is a big, big Madonna fan. He just adores her," said Rochette. "I've always loved that song, that melody."

LEUNG LEFT SMILING

Leung, meanwhile, can't stop smiling as she moves ever closer to her date with an Olympic dream. She had a slight step out on her opening triple flip, but aced the lutz combo and double Axel.

Though Leung seemed startled when told about what had unfolded before she skated, she admitted feeling a certain vibe in the air.

"I felt that something was off with the other skaters," she said. "But I decided not to let it bother me."

The cushion she owns over Hawker and the rest "takes some of the pressure off me." But she knows the Olympic berth is hers to grab.

Now she just needs to seal the deal.

"I know if I do well (tonight), I'll go to the Olympics," said Leung. "It's doing well in the free program that really counts."

Let's hope she's got company in that thought tonight.

Plenty of it.


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