Rochette drew strength from Frechette

By RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

VANCOUVER — Before she became an inspiration, Joannie Rochette needed some.

So last year ahead of the world championships, the Olympic bronze medallist and Canadian figure-skating hero went to hear Quebec diver Alexandre Despatie speak.

He couldn’t show up, so there was a pinch-hitter.

It was Sylvie Frechette, the Olympic synchronized swimming star whose fiance committed suicide right before she was to compete at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“Sylvie said when something like that happens, you find a strength from inside greater than yourself and that’s how she was able to get back in the water,” Rochette said Friday. “Her story inspired me. I remember thinking, ‘there’s no way I could’ve done that.’”

Clearly, she found the courage and strength.

But it came, like a figure-skating competition, one stride, one element at a time.

When Rochette learned of her mother Therese’s death two days before the ladies short program, her immediate thought was to comfort her father Normand.

“But he told me to think about myself first — that he was here to support me this week,” the 24-year-old Rochette said. “It meant a lot. I’m going to be there for him after this. I don’t know how he’ll do (on his own now). I talked to my mother every day. It was funny to me to watch the TV capture his facial expressions when I skated. I saw his reactions after my skate and it was like he was watching a hockey game or something. I’ve never seen him into my skating that way before and it was nice to see.

“It brought us closer together.”

Woe is someone who suffers such tragedy alone.

But for an athlete on the biggest stage in the world, isolation and privacy became vital to handling the shock and grief.

At the Pacific Coliseum, Rochette found an empty nook belonging to the short-track speed skaters.

“I couldn’t be in front of the cameras because every time I would see someone look at me with sad eyes, it would make me cry,” she said. “So I just wanted to get outside a bit, listen to my iPod, blast the music, and put myself in a good mood to compete.”

She thought about her mother and their dreams together.

Therese, from tiny Ile-Dupas, Que., pushed her daughter to achieve things she couldn’t.

“She didn’t speak English, she wanted me to learn English,” Joannie said. “She didn’t have a high-school diploma. She wanted me to do well in school. If I got 98% on a test and knew the right answer, she wanted to know why I didn’t get the other 2%.

“She wanted me to live a healthy lifestyle. She put me in skating because she wanted me to make friends before I went to school so I wouldn’t be lonely. My first coach told her I had talent and could do things in the sport if I was pushed.”

So Therese did.

There were times Joannie thought her mom was “a pain in the ass”. She just wanted to be at the rink eating poutine with her friends and having fun, but her mom was always watching over her.

Celine Dion sent Rochette a bouquet of flowers in sympathy. She had lost her father while performing.

Before Dion and husband Rene Angelil made contact, Rochette already decided to change the program she’ll skate Saturday for the Olympic gala exhibition.

It was originally to Madonna’s ‘Die Another Day’.

Now, it’s Dion’s ‘Vol’, or Flight, a song about her niece who passed away after suffering cystic fibrosis. Rochette skated to it in 2006.

“My mom loved Celine Dion,” she said. “And she always sang along.”

Rochette has heard she’s being called a hero, an inspiration to young girls, a beacon for a sport still suffering from the Salt Lake City judging scandal.

“I don’t feel that way right now,” she said.

She just did what her mom would’ve wanted.

And, under the circumstances, more than either of them dreamed possible.

ryan.pyette@sunmedia.ca

POLL