Rochette takes QMI Agency's female honour

Joannie Rochette's grace in the face of adversity will long be remembered as one of the gutsiest at...

Joannie Rochette's grace in the face of adversity will long be remembered as one of the gutsiest at the Olympic Games. (QMI Agency/Daniel Mallard)

DAVE POLLARD, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 5:47 PM ET

Under normal circumstances, a bronze-medal showing at the most successful Winter Olympics this country has ever experienced wouldn't get an athlete included in the discussion about who should be Canada's athlete of the year.

But Joannie Rochette competed under far from normal circumstances in Vancouver last February.

Just two days after the shocking death of her mother, Therese, the diminutive figure skater from tiny Ile Dupas, Que., held herself together long enough to complete an inspiring and courageous journey that ended with her first Olympic medal, a bronze that glittered every bit as much as gold.

And for showing grace in the face of adversity, turning in a performance that will long be remembered as one of the gutsiest we've seen at the Games, Rochette was named the inaugural winner of QMI Agency's female athlete of the year award after voting by the chain's sports editors.

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It was a nightmarish scenario Joannie Rochette never could have envisioned in the days leading up to what would be the biggest, and perhaps happiest, moment of her figure skating career, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Representing Canada's first legitimate chance at a women's figure skating medal since Elizabeth Manley's silver in 1988, Rochette, the 2009 world silver medallist, was as focused and prepared for the Vancouver Games as she could be after a slow start to the season.

Then, two days before she was scheduled to skate in the short program, the first stride toward a possible podium finish, her whole world came crashing down.

Rochette, just 24 and an only child, learned her 55-year-old mother, Therese, had died of a heart attack shortly after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter skate.

But rather than pull out of the Games, a decision everyone –— the Canadian Olympic Committee, her coaches, fellow competitors and, heck, even die-hard figure skating fans who'd pinned their hopes on her — would have understood, Rochette instead decided that returning to the sport she'd dedicated her life to since she was six years old was the best thing to do.

Five days later, holding back tears as an entire nation roared in support, Rochette stepped onto the podium to claim the most celebrated bronze medal in Canadian Olympic history.

"I surprised myself at how I could handle all of that situation," Rochette told QMI Agency. "I didn't know I had that strength in me. I think the sport saved me. Throughout my career I've had ... you know, it's a real school of life, going through different experiences. I had a great team around me. I didn't really need all those people every day, I didn't need to talk that much, but I needed to know they were there for me.

"I didn't know I could do this. I don't know how I went through those two weeks. It was very tough, emotionally and physically."

Incredibly, Rochette's thoughts in the immediate aftermath of Therese's death were for her father, Normand, not herself. Not for her Olympic dream, which could now go unfullfilled. But for a father who suddenly was filled with unimaginable heartache and a profound sense of loss.

"I was very worried about him, how he could cope with it," Rochette admitted. "Especially during competitions, my mom would do everything, organize everything, choose his clothes in the morning. For him to be alone, sleeping alone, I was very worried."

Somehow, Rochette was able to dam up the flood of emotions before skating in the short program, where one slip could cost her a shot at a medal. She put on a brave face and nailed it, scoring a personal best of 71.36, then 48 hours later skated a near-perfect long program to sew up the bronze medal.

"What was important to me was the judges would judge what they saw on the ice, that they would not feel moved by my story and that would not influence the results," Rochette said, explaining her mindset before the short program. "I wanted to be judged fairly and if I was worth a medal, good. A medal was a bonus. It was my goal but back then it was hard enough just to get on the ice. I think I really wanted that medal in the back of my head but just to get on the ice for the short program was big enough.

"I was really eager to get into the long program and go for the medal because I knew I had a fair chance to be on the podium. When I look back on it, I stepped out of my triple flip and made slight mistakes here and there. I didn't do all the jumps I had planned.

"I was happy to be third but when I look at it, I know I could have been second. I'm still competitive and would have liked to be second. (Watching the performance on video), I just looked so tired."

As the Games wound down, the Vancouver Organizing Committee gave Rochette the first-ever Terry Fox Award, which she shared with Petra Majdic. The Slovenian cross-country skier won a bronze medal despite competing in the individual sprint with five broken ribs, the result of an earlier crash.

Then the COC named Rochette the Canadian flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies, an honour normally reserved for multi-medallists or event winners. The COC had plenty of choices — Canada won 26 medals in Vancouver, including 14 gold — but settled on the sentimental favourite, Rochette, to lead the Canadian delegation into B.C. Place Stadium.

"It was very touching, it was a big honour for me to get those awards, especially the flag-bearer," she said. "Usually it's a gold medallist who gets to walk into the stadium with the flag. I was very surprised when they asked me but at the same time I felt like so many Canadians had me on their shoulders and helped me get through this competition. For me it was a huge honour to come into the stadium with the flag.

"I know in the end I gave everything I had, I left it in Vancouver, and that's the most important. That's what the Olympics are all about."

Rochette's steely resolve truly was the epitome of the Olympic spirit, and that bronze medal, well, it has a golden hue.


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