“I held her in my arms and I whispered: ‘If you need anything, just let me know. I’m here, whatever you need,’ ” Canadian Olympic team mentor Sylvie Fréchette recalls, her voice raw with emotion. “I really need to speak to you—but later,” Joannie Rochette replied.
The 24-year-old Canadian figure skater had, just hours earlier, been dealt a tragic blow with the death, early that morning, of her 55-year-old mother, Thérèse, of a heart attack. Thérèse and her husband, Normand, had just arrived from their home in Ile Dupas, Que., only the day before to watch their daughter skate.
Fréchette, a former Olympic synchronized swimmer, is sadly experienced to help Rochette. Just days before the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, she was struck by tragedy when her fiancé, Sylvain Lake, committed suicide in their apartment. Fréchette chose to fly to Spain; ultimately, she gave the performance of her life, winning gold. “She’s in a whirlpool of emotions right now,” says Fréchette. “I’m here to listen to her, to let her talk, to be friendly territory, a shoulder she can cry on.”
Fréchette next saw Rochette the day before the ladies’ short program. Rochette told her she’d actually laid out the best training session of the week, landing her difficult triple-double-double trick; her legs, however, felt weak because she hadn’t had much sleep the night before. Rochette looked less numb. And her skin had regained some colour, said Fréchette. But she worried about her dad, and looked forward to returning home, to be with her grandparents. At the same time, she was concerned about the time after Vancouver, when reality had sunk in, and there would be a funeral to attend.
The death has rocked the tightly knit figure skating team. “It’s devastating,” said ice dancer Tessa Virtue, fighting back tears. She and Rochette had been roommates in the athlete’s village. (VANOC moved immediately to create a special pass so Rochette’s boyfriend could gain entry to the village; Rochette was given a single room.) “I feel so much for Joannie,” says Virtue. “We’re all here to support her.” There’s no good or bad decision, Fréchette told Rochette. “Skate the competition, or don’t—it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to perform. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I want to do this.’ ”
“Go for it,” Fréchette told her. “It’s times like these,” she added, “when you realize Olympians have something special.”
Rochette, who earned a warm and rousing ovation both before and after her skate, broke down afterwards, caught in the emotion of the moment; it was a courageous and beautiful skate, earning Rochette a score of 71.36, a new season’s best. No matter where Rochette lands in the standings, she’s entered the hearts of millions of Canadians.