Rochette shines even with a heavy heart

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

CALGARY -- The performance was wonderfully sublime, the result the most encouraging thing Canadian women's skating has seen in oh so many years.

But the strength to skate through the pain inside ... that was the thing that said the most about the ever-growing maturity Joannie Rochette keeps revealing each and every day.

Quite the thought on a day at the Pengrowth Saddledome when Rochette made some history by putting a Canadian on top of a women's qualifying group for the first time since the system was introduced at the world figure skating championships in 1999.

It got better by the end of the night: None of the top three skaters in the evening session -- Japan's Fumie Suguri, and Americans Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen -- could top Rochette's 117.12-point total, leaving the petite Quebecer as the overall leader heading into tomorrow's short program.

It was a stunning, unexpected result.

Rochette did it by matching her Olympic effort with six clean triple jumps -- a total that surpassed all the medalists in Turin -- and posting a personal-best score. It was nearly six better than Japan's Yukari Nakano ( 111.14), who placed second in the group.

"She was ready again," said an impressed Manon Perron, Rochette's coach. "It's been a long year, but each time she finds the energy she needs."

CLUBMATE KILLED

Finding the will to even step on the ice since Turin has been the mightiest of tests. On the final weekend of the Olympics, one of Rochette's training mates, 14-year-old Andreanne Rousseau, was killed in a head-on collision just outside Trois-Rivieres.

Rochette learned about the auto accident when she returned home from Italy -- Simon Beaudoin, another clubmate in St-Leonard, Que., was badly injured but will recover -- and took a week away from training to grieve and help bury her young friend.

"The first week back (from Turin), we were a mess, me and her," admitted Perron.

It still isn't far from the surface. While Rochette positively beamed as she spoke with reporters after her skate yesterday, she later bit her lip and fought back tears while talking about the tragedy.

"It was very heartbreaking," said the sensitive 20-year-old from tiny Ile-Dupas, Que. "They're people I'm used to training with every day ... but I know (Rousseau) is with me now, so it's good."

Perron sees it as another test of Rochette's character, one she is passing so far. She believes her skater will channel the emotion into something that will be uplifting this week.

"We've turned it into a positive," said Perron.

So much so, that the buzz is already in the air that Rochette could be the one to end Canada's 18-year absence from the women's podium at the world championships. Especially after Japan's Olympic champ, Shizuka Arakawa, and bronze medalist Irina Slutskaya of Russia both took a pass on this event.

"I'm not a fool," said Rochette, who was a surprising fifth at the Winter Olympics. "I know that five minus two equals three. I know it's possible, but I'm not focusing on that at all.

"Jeffrey (Buttle, her good friend) taught me that at the Olympics. He wanted to skate for himself in the long program, and so that's what I'm trying to hang onto."

Given her position atop the leaderboard, Rochette might have to revise her math. She has a real shot at giving Canada its first world women's champion since Karen Magnussen in 1973.

Rochette's confidence was already booming like never before since Turin, and with a medal this week, she might indeed be setting herself up to be a world leader in the quadrennial leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

CONFIDENCE BOOST

"(Turin) helped my confidence," said Rochette. "A lot of people didn't know me before the Olympics, but they know me now."

An even more unforgettable story may just be starting to build.

Rochette stole the show yesterday, in more ways than one. Her heart is heavy, but her strength so admirable.

Then again, she's not doing this alone.

Andreanne Rousseau would be so proud.


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