Champ shines on her birthday

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:54 AM ET

The birthday girl treated herself to a second national title and a ticket to her first Olympics last night at the Civic Centre.

Joannie Rochette won't soon forget the night she celebrated her 20th birthday. Then again, it's not every day that 5,598 folks join in on your party in the middle of the Canadian figure skating championships.

''This is the greatest birthday party I've ever had,'' Rochette said last night after successfully defending the crown she won a year ago in London. ''To have all the crowd with me the way they were ... it was very special.''

A rather large contingent from her tiny home town of Ile-Dupas, Que., even serenaded Rochette with a chorus of Happy Birthday. Only about 500 people reside in the village one hour east of Montreal, ''but maybe not too many are there tonight,'' she said with a laugh.

Rochette won't remember it as her best skate. She had a slight step out on her triple lutz combination, popped a triple loop and two-footed the landing of her second lutz. But there were four clean triples and a double lutz, the jump that's nagged at her this week.

She expects to use it all to drive her as she prepares for the Turin Games.

''It was a positive note to leave here on,'' said Rochette. ''It was not perfect, and I'm not completely satisfied. But it gives me motivation to work on the details. I'll go home hungrier and want it more. I want to leave this season doing a perfect program once, each one.''

Despite her errors, Rochette still won the night by 10.06 points with a 113.06 score. Her overall total of 195.83 provided her with a victory margin of 18.04 points.

As it turned out, it was a night for a full podium of smiling skaters. Vancouver's Mira Leung, all 16 years of her, landed six clean triples in an enchanting skate that sealed her berth on the Turin team. Her 177.79-point total was 14.07 better than bronze medalist Lesley Hawker of Barrie, who rebounded splendidly from a disastrous short program.

For Leung, the Olympics are arriving four years early in a lot of minds.

Not hers.

''For the past couple of months, I knew I was going to the Olympics. I just knew it,'' said Leung. ''(Last) night it came true ... now I can finally say I'm going to the Olympics.

''I've always wanted to go to 2006, even when people kept saying 2010. It's still a goal but to me, it was more of a fallback if I didn't make 2010.''

Hawker, who rooted her on as she watched Leung skate on a TV monitor, has no doubt she'll do Canada proud in Turin.

''She's probably the most solid competitor I've ever competed against,'' said Hawker, 24. ''It was an honour to compete against her. Ask her, but she's probably missed only three jumps all year.''

Leung grinned when she heard that.

''Maybe that's it,'' she said. ''(Consistency) is one of my strengths. I'm proud of it.''

LANDED FOUR TRIPLES

Hawker was mighty proud of herself after landing four triples in an exhilarating skate that earned her a standing ovation.

''"I couldn't stop smiling now if you asked me to,'' she said. ''I'm just really happy to come back after an awful short ... I know I'm better than that.

''Olympic team or not, I just wanted to leave here happy with myself.''

It was a night that left Ottawa's legendary Barbara Ann Scott of Ottawa encouraged about the possibility of someone joining her as an Olympic women's gold medalist. It's been a 58-year drought since she won in 1948.

''I think you've got two lovely ones right now, especially the little one (Leung),'' she said. ''I hope I'm alive to present that (gold medal). It would be the happiest day of my life.''

AT A GLANCE

- What: Canadian figure skating championships.

- Where: Civic Centre.

- Today's events: 9 a.m. -- Junior women's free skate; 12:10 p.m. -- Senior original dance; 3 p.m. -- Senior pairs free skate; 5:45 p.m. -- Senior men's free skate.

- Tickets: Ticketmaster, 755-1111, or www.ticketmaster.ca.

rob.brodie@ott.sunpub.com


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