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Canadian figure skater competes two days after mother's death

VANCOUVER — Dressed in black, Joannie Rochette wiped her eyes and took a deep breath before stepping on the ice.

Hours earlier on this day, the Canadian figure skater's mother, Therese, had died of a massive heart attack a few hours after arriving to watch her daughter compete in the Olympics.

Now Rochette was at practice Sunday after spending time at the Olympic village with her father, Normand. He was in the stands, along with her boyfriend, ice dancer Guillaume Gfeller, and a few family friends.

"She's so close to her mother, I think she doesn't even entertain not skating," her agent, David Baden, said. "She'll be trying to fulfill the goal they had together."

The women's event began Tuesday with the short program, and Rochette, the reigning world silver medalist, took the ice. A solid performance, after which she cried and took a moment to compose herself, put her in third place, behind world champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan.

Japan's Miki Ando is fourth going into Thursday's free skate, followed by Americans Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu.

Rochette will not speak publicly about her mother's death until she finishes competing, Skate Canada president Benoit Lavoie said.

"She's going to get through this," Canadian teammate Cynthia Phaneuf said. "She is just so strong. By being here and being able to compete after that happened, I'm just very impressed. I think she's doing the right thing. She won't get any stronger in her room."

Rochette, 24, is the only child of Therese and Normand Rochette. Therese, 55, was her daughter's "No. 1 fan," Lavoie said, and was always there for her. It was her mom who shuttled her back and forth to the rink when Rochette was younger.

"But the greatest effort to make, as far as I'm concerned, was to deprive myself of her presence when she was so young," Therese wrote in French in an e-mail to the Christian Science Monitor last month. She said Joannie had effectively left their Montreal home at 13 to train at a sports school in Trois Rivieres, Quebec.

"That was a very great sacrifice, because she was an only child. I missed her a lot, and those years are escaped for good."

But Therese said she had no regrets. "When I see her joy, I tell myself that we did the right thing to bend to her demand."

Rochette has been in Vancouver since the opening ceremony, and her parents arrived Saturday from Montreal. They visited Canada House and then went back to the apartment where they were staying. Normand Rochette later found Therese passed out and rushed her to a Vancouver hospital, where Skate Canada said she was pronounced dead.

Normand Rochette went to the Olympic village around 6 a.m. Sunday to break the news to his daughter.

"It's a tragedy," said Canadian two-time silver medalist Brian Orser, who got to know Rochette's parents when he toured with her in Stars on Ice in Canada.

"I'm proud of her that she is continuing to compete because she's a great competitor and she's in great shape. And she's skating for the right reasons."

After spending Sunday morning with her father and longtime coach Manon Perron, Rochette appeared in the runway of the practice arena as the rest of the skaters in her session took the ice.

"I didn't expect her to come," said Swiss skater Sarah Meier, one of the other five skaters in the session. "I think I wouldn't be able to do the same thing if I was in her situation."

Wearing black tights and a black Canadian team hoodie, Rochette swiped at her eyes and then paused at the boards, gathering herself. When she skated over to Perron to drop off her skate-blade guards, Perron pointed out where her father was sitting. Rochette turned and waved to him.

Though she was blinking hard her first few laps around the ice, Rochette quickly settled into her practice routine. She showed no lapses in concentration, jumped well and did a light run-through of her tango short program, even flashing a saucy smile at one point. In the stands, her father repeatedly rubbed his eyes.

"Joannie is doing as well as one can expect. It has been an emotional roller coaster for her," Skate Canada CEO William Thompson said. "She made the decision that she wants to compete and maintain her training schedule. It is providing her with stability in a very uncertain time of her life."

The few people in the rink applauded when Rochette finished her program, and again as she left the ice.

"I can't even imagine what she's going through," said Frank Carroll, who coaches Nagasu and men's gold medalist Evan Lysacek, shaking his head.

"It takes such strength to get out there and control your emotions just under normal circumstances. The only thing is if she's in shock and is numb and can just go out there and do it automatically."

Rochette is Canada's best chance to win a medal since Liz Manley won the silver in 1988, the last time the Games were in Canada.

In the short program, Kim, seeking South Korea's first figure skating medal, earned 78.50 points, giving her a huge 4.72-point edge over Asada.

Rochette is 2.52 points back of Asada.

A bloody nose that began halfway through Nagasu's program bothered her enough that she feared she had no chance for a medal.

Nagasu felt her nose start bleeding in the middle of her routine. But she completed it and received 63.76 points, a personal best.

Canadian figure skater competes two days after mother's death 02/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 12:31am]

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