Frechette aches for Rochette

By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency

VANCOUVER - Sylvie Frechette held Joannie Rochette in her arms and didn’t want to let go.

There were too many emotions to explain, too many thoughts to try and verbalize. They were standing in the Olympic Lounge of the Athletes Village Sunday morning, two relative strangers of Canadian sporting fame, brought together by tragic circumstances.

“In a way I feel so close to her and I don’t really know her very well,” said Frechette, the former gold medallist serving now as mentor to Canada’s Olympic team. “When I heard about what happened, it brought back so many emotions for me this morning. It’s hard to explain. I saw her. I held her in my arms and I whispered ‘If you need anything, just let me know. I’m here.’ She said we’d talk later.

“I understand, as much as I can, what’s going on with her. I know she’s in a whirlpool of emotions right now. I’m here to listen to her, here to help if she needs help.”

Their circumstances are different but equally painful: Rochette’s parents arrived at the Olympic Games on Saturday. By Sunday morning, her 55-year-old mother, with no apparent warning signs, was dead. Jeffrey Buttle, the former champion figure skater and a friend of Rochette’s, was once quoted in La Presse calling Rochette’s mom “the most important person in her life.”

This wasn’t what Frechette, the synchronized swimming gold medallist, faced in 1992 in Barcelona. She left for the Games just days after her fiance committed suicide in their apartment. She was the one who had discovered him dead.

It is 18 years later and her voice still cracks as she speaks of the pain, the emotional confusion, and the competitive instinct that’s inside all world-class athletes. Rochette, through the Canadian Olympic team, has indicated she will not go home. She will compete here.

“You have to understand what this is like,” said Frechette. “You are the athletic peak of your career. This is the biggest event of your life. And personally, you are having the worst day of your life.

“I want to tell her that whatever decision she takes, there is no wrong here. She has to do what is right for herself. It can’t come from her coach, her friends, her teammates. She has to put herself where she needs to be. I can tell her that from experience. I don’t want her to think about what others say. You can’t get caught up in all that.”

Sunday was a remarkable day at what is growing into a remarkable Winter Olympics. It was rivalry day at hockey, with three gold-medal matchups of Olympics gone by. Another favoured Canadian crashed. At speed skating, there was Canadian silver but everywhere you went, people were talking about Joannie Rochette.

This has been an Olympics of and about death. Brian Burke, the general manager of Team USA, lost his son in a car crash early this month. A Georgian luger crashed horrifically to his death on the morning of the opening ceremony. And now a parent here to watch her daughter compete in the biggest event of her life is unexpectedly gone.

The deaths, at and around the Games, tug at your heart. These are deaths that seemingly touch everyone.

An ashen-looking Burke was standing behind a fence in the media area Sunday when he was told of the death of Rochette’s mom. “Oh God,” he said, his voice beginning to crack, his tone uncharacteristically hushed. “My heart goes out to this young lady. I can’t imagine what she must be going through.”

And then he paused and wiped his already-red eyes.

“You can’t have this many people come together for 17 days without having personal tragedies. I would say mine pre-dated this, but we’re playing today and Brendan (his late son) was supposed to be here,” Burke said.

“For this young lady, on the eve of competition, for this to happen, what can you say that makes any sense at all?”

steve.simmons@sunmedia.ca

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