Grace under pressure is how Ernest Hemingway described “guts.” He was more of a bullfight fan than a figure skating guy, but in an arena in Vancouver Tuesday night his definition came to life, wearing a sweet black costume, glittering with sequins.
The crowd at Pacific Coliseum was cheering for Joannie Rochette the moment she traded hand-slaps with her coach and skated onto the ice. From that moment on, she must have felt their warm embrace, their goodwill and their sympathy.
There was no attempt at a pasted-on smile, in a sport full of false smiles. Her mother Thérèse had died of a heart attack in Vancouver just two nights earlier; there was nothing to smile about. The only note of cheer was a vivid red flower that crawled up the back of her costume on a winding green stem. One imagines Thérèse telling her daughter how beautiful she looked in this costume, for indeed she did.
But her mother was not in the seats, not beside her father Normand, to share this moment. There was only the program to carry her, and the music: La Cumparsita, a tango at points jaunty and wistful and sad. Sometimes, goes the bumper sticker, life is just about showing up. Rochette did so much more than that. She launched into her triple lutz-double toeloop combination. It was clean and solid and brave, and if she was relieved, there was no hint of it. She carried on: flying sit spin, double axel, and on and on. There was no attempt to sell the program to the audience or to the judges. It was obvious by being here how much this meant to her. It ended with a spin. Her composure cracked when the music stopped and the crowd exploded in applause, and the real world came back into focus. She shuddered with emotion and grief.
Floral bouquets rained down from every corner of the rink, and young girls recruited from local figure skating clubs flashed across the ice to gather them. One hopes their coaches and parents were there tonight to tell these girls to savour this moment, to remember its grace. Rochette skated off the ice into the arms of her coach Manon Perron, and the tears flowed. She composed herself in the place known as the kiss and cry zone. It’s a tiny place; just room enough for a skater and a coach, and 11,700 members of the audience.
The marks came: 71.36, her season’s best. There were marks for skating skills, for transitions and linking footwork, for choreography, performance and interpretation. There are no marks for showing up. Her skate put her into third place, far above Miki Ando of Japan in forth, and well behind first-place Yu-Na Kim of Korea. She looked up into the stands and blew a kiss.
Later, after leaving the ice, she was asked about the support of the crowd. “It was hard to handle,” she said. “But I appreciate the support.” She was asked how she is doing. She said: “Words cannot describe.”
She skates her free program Thursday. Until then, she is surrounded by good people. The Canadian team here has pulled together as family, and the skating community is smaller still. It can only have buoyed Rochette’s spirits to watch her Olympic village roommate, ice dancer Tessa Virtue, and her partner Scott Moir, skate to gold a night earlier with their fluid, interpretation of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
Earlier, Rochette and her coach posted a message thanking Canadians for their support. “We have received so many emails and texts and we wanted people to know that we read everything you are sending. We also wanted everyone to know these are helping us get through this. We are going to do it with Thérèse.” And so, together Tuesday night, they skated, mother and daughter, bound by a lifetime of memories.