Thérèse Rochette was born in Lanoraie, Que., a town 60 km northeast of Montreal on the St. Lawrence River, on June 6, 1954. Her father, Arthur Guèvremont, was a lumberjack; mother Antoinette stayed home with Thérèse and her brother Michel, who was older by four years. Michel remembers Thérèse as a determined child who, “once she had a goal, had to succeed.” She loved being outside, and skating was one of her favourite activities: every winter, when parts of the St. Lawrence froze over, the Guèvremont family would take to the river, which Michel calls “our skating rink.” But it was dangerous, he adds: the ice could crack, and sometimes, people drowned.
As a teenager, Thérèse struck up a relationship with Pierre, a local boy who was friends with Michel from school. The two fell in love, and talked of marriage, but their plans were cut short when, in 1975, Pierre was killed in a car crash. “She had a very hard time,” Michel says. To comfort herself, Thérèse would listen to Édith Piaf’s L’Hymne à l’amour, a song of love and loss.
It was about a year later that she met Normand Rochette, a kind-hearted man from nearby Île Dupas, Michel says. The two were married, and settled in Normand’s hometown; Thérèse took a job working with the elderly in a senior citizens’ home, and Normand, in construction. “We grew up along the St. Lawrence and we’ve never been able to leave,” says Michel, a welder, who now lives in Berthierville, just over the bridge from Île Dupas and up the river from Lanoraie.
On Jan. 13, 1986, Thérèse gave birth to daughter Joannie. Michel recalls how, when she was still barely able to walk, the little girl stood on the river’s edge, watching the children skating, and “asked if she could try it, too.” Not even two years old, he says, Joannie strapped on her first pair of skates, and ventured out onto the St. Lawrence. Soon after, her formal figure-skating instruction began—and like Thérèse, she was determined, especially after watching the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics on television. Thérèse supported her wholeheartedly. “A lot of parents would just drop their kids off at the rink, but my mom would stay there; she would watch me skate, she would videotape me, she would show it to me and make sure I did my homework before I went to bed,” Joannie told a reporter last fall. “At night, she was tired. But she never showed it to me.”
Most residents of Île Dupas, Thérèse included, spoke little English, but she encouraged her daughter to learn it, subscribing to English television (Scooby Doo was a household favourite). Thérèse was Joannie’s “biggest fan and critic,” according to family friend Alain Bellehumeur, and pushed her daughter to succeed. In later years, he says, she was often unable to watch Joannie compete; she’d nervously pace the hallways until applause broke out.
Normand, who’d once dreamt of a hockey career, worked tirelessly to support the family. Even with two salaries, money was tight as skating bills mounted, so friends and family pitched in, holding spaghetti dinners and other fundraisers to help. “Joannie was lucky; she was always spoiled by the community,” Thérèse told La Presse in 2005. After moving to Trois Rivières at age 13 to train with coach Manon Perron, Joannie returned home most weekends, often shedding tears when it was time to leave again. The separation was difficult for Thérèse, too, who worried she and her daughter might grow apart.
They didn’t. As Joannie’s victories piled up—she’s now a six-time Canadian champion—her mother was a constant presence at her side. Preparing for the 2006 Turin Olympics, she sought Thérèse’s advice on the piece of music her choreographer had selected. Joannie slipped a CD into the stereo, and Thérèse suddenly burst into tears. It was L’Hymne à l’amour. Joannie skated to the song, finishing fifth overall.
Last year, when Joannie claimed a silver at the World Championships in L.A.—the first Canadian woman to medal in over 20 years—Thérèse’s pride in her daughter was palpable, says Bellehumeur. At a restaurant after the medals were awarded, a group of young skaters asked for her autograph. “Thérèse said, ‘Can you believe it! My daughter’s signing autographs!’ ” recalls Bellehumeur, who was there. Still, as the Vancouver Games approached, Thérèse was increasingly nervous. With Joannie now 24, her mother thought that “Vancouver might be her last chance [to medal],” Michel says. A few days before Joannie was to compete, the Rochettes landed in Vancouver. Just hours later, Thérèse had a massive heart attack, and died. She was 55. A grieving Joannie went on to skate, giving what was hailed as the performance of a lifetime. She won Olympic bronze. “C’est pour toi, maman,” she said.