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Figure skating star Joannie Rochette intends to compete despite mother's sudden death

February 21, 2010 |  4:11 pm


About seven hours after learning her mother had died unexpectedly, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, the reigning world silver medalist, showed her resolve to compete in the Olympics as planned by coming to her scheduled Sunday afternoon practice at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, Canada.

"Joannie is a very courageous person,'' said her teammate Cynthia Phaneuf, like Rochette a native French speaker from Quebec. "Just to be there at practice, I was very impressed. She is going to get through this.

"I think she is doing the right thing. She isn't going to get any better in her room. Just being there shows how strong a person she is. It shows she is someone to look up to.''

Canadian figure skating officials confirmed before the practice that Rochette intended to remain in the women's singles event, which begins with Tuesday's short program and ends with the free skate Thursday.

"Skating is so much emotion,'' two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan said Sunday. "I worry that it will be too much for her to handle.''

William Thompson, chief executive of Skate Canada, said, "If she changes her mind and feels she has to leave, she has our full support as an association."

Therese Rochette, 55, died early Sunday morning at a Vancouver hospital, only hours after she and her husband, Normand, had arrived in town to watch their only child compete. Rochette's agent, David Baden of International Management Group, said the apparent cause of death was a heart attack.

Normand Rochette and the skater's longtime coach, Manon Perron, gave her the news about 6 a.m. at the Olympic Village.

Her father then came to practice.

Skate Canada President Benoit Lavoie said Joannie Rochette remained composed and "was able to go back to Olympic mode.''

Dad For Rochette, the ice could be a place where she finds a comfort zone, doing something so familiar and routine that it allows her to forget briefly how dramatically her life has been thrown into tragic turmoil.

"Being able to stick with her plan of practicing and competing is giving her some stability at what otherwise is a very uncertain time,'' Thompson said. "I wasn't surprised to see [her at practice], and I wasn't surprised to see her skating well.''

After warming up, Rochette landed a couple of strong triple flip jumps in succession, then did a partial run-through of her short program to the music of a famous tango, "La Cumparsita." Dressed in a peach tank top and black tights, she managed a smile in the first section of the 2-minute, 50-second program. 

Rochette has struggled all season, apparently burdened with the expectations engendered by her performance at last year's world meet.

Kwan said there were two ways for Rochette to approach the Olympic competition.

"One is to skate for her mother,'' Kwan said. "That would be beautiful but too emotionally hard.

"The other is to try to put herself at a remove and just skate.''

Frank Carroll, coach of men's champion Evan Lysacek as well as women's singles U.S. Olympian Mirai Nagasu, thought Rochette might be able to finish the competition before the reality of what happened fully hits her.

"It takes such strength to get out there and control your emotions under normal circumstances,'' Carroll said. "The only thing I can think of is if she is in shock and she is numb, that she just goes through it like you are on automatic. Manon is a great teacher and I'm sure if anyone can get her through it, Manon can get her through it.''

Reigning world champion Kim Yuna of South Korea, who trains in Canada, said, "I just hope she gets through it quickly and gets back to compete.''

Nagasu thought Rochette could find motivation in her mother's death, as Nagasu has from her own mother's battle with cancer.

"I think this will just spur [Rochette] on to do even better,'' Nagasu said. "I think she will skate for her mom.''

Nagasu, 16, spoke publicly about her mother's cancer for the first time Sunday.

Ikuku Nagasu was diagnosed with thyroid cancer last fall. She has had two surgeries and will undergo radiation therapy after the Olympics. The prognosis is good, according to Mirai Nagasu.

"She has been very strong for me,'' Nagasu said of her mother. "And I want to skate here for her.''

Canadian figure skating officials said Rochette would not speak to the media until after the competition.

"I know she will find the strength and the courage from her friends, from her coach and from the millions of fans,'' said Kim's coach, Brian Orser, a two-time Canadian Olympic figure skating silver medalist. "I'm proud of her that she is continuing to compete.''

-- Philip Hersh in Vancouver

Photos: Top, Joannie Rochette with her coach, Manon Perron, as the skater takes a break during Sunday practice. Below, Normand Rochette watches his daughter practice. Credit: Amy Sancetta / Associated Press