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Joannie Rochette, an Olympic skater, following an interview in Montreal, March 24, 2010. Christinne Muschi for the Globe and Mail (Christinne Muschi/christinne muschi)
Joannie Rochette, an Olympic skater, following an interview in Montreal, March 24, 2010. Christinne Muschi for the Globe and Mail (Christinne Muschi/christinne muschi)

The Interview

For now, the ice calls to Joannie Rochette Add to ...

Joannie Rochette knows she will eventually have to go home, but she's just not ready yet.

When the charity fashion show is done and the skating tour has wrapped, when the interviews have run and the well-wishers forget, there will still be a half-empty house on Île Dupas where she will have to sit with her father in the stillness. But maybe in the summer. Not now.

She has avoided the solitude of home so far, partly by choice, partly by accident. After she flew home from Vancouver, dread led Ms. Rochette and her boyfriend to take the scenic route to the family home just northeast of Montreal, adding hours to the trip. During the week she took off to arrange and attend her mother's funeral, solitude was fleeting.

For now, the ice calls. The 24-year-old is back training and has a new cause with the Heart and Stroke Foundation. She will soon set out on her annual two-month, paid figure-skating tour across North America. The quiet, contemplative part of grief must wait until her cause is properly launched and the bills for the year are paid.

So far, she has zipped through denial, depression, anger and back again, and she knows she's not done facing the emotional swirl over the sudden death of Thérèse Rochette. In the space of an hour-long conversation, every attempt to change topics inevitably leads back to mother, and those silvery eyes glaze over with tears once again.

"I think I'm still in denial. I know she's dead, I know she's not there any more. I saw her in her casket, even if she didn't look like herself. It was shocking. When I saw her at the hospital in Vancouver, she was still warm, her hands still had a normal feel. But I was so far away from home, I thought I would walk into the house and she would still be there," she says, sinking into a sofa in a downtown Montreal hotel suite.

"I didn't believe it for a couple days. Even now, it feels like I'll just go home and she'll be there."

The nightmare that made Joannie Rochette into an Olympic legend is well known. Her mother went to Vancouver for the Olympics on Feb. 20. On the 21st, Thérèse, 55, died suddenly of a heart attack. On the 23rd, Ms. Rochette stopped crying long enough to nail her short program. On the 25th, it was the long program and a bronze medal. On the 27th, a gala skate. And on the 28th, she carried Canada's flag into the closing ceremonies.

In a week that leaves most people curled up in grief, she put on her costume, applied her makeup, strapped on her skates and soldiered on, covered only by her thin, fragile smile. It's all a haze for her now.

Less known are the anger and guilt Ms. Rochette carries.

Thérèse Rochette was a heavy smoker and fast-food junkie who went into a spiral of declining health after a 2002 car accident. Unable to work, she went from a physically demanding job to being a near shut-in who had trouble climbing stairs.

Smoking was a constant source of conflict between daughter and mother. The skater remembers being 8 and trapped in a car with the windows up, her mother smoking at the wheel. Thérèse Rochette would catch a bad cold and smoke. She tried nicotine patches once, but would peel them off, have a smoke, and stick them back on. A few years ago, she had a cancer scare. She quit for three days, then celebrated the all-clear by lighting up again.

"When she passed away, at first I was mad at her for not taking care of herself. I was mad because I didn't understand why it would happen at that precise moment. I was jealous of the athletes who had their parents. I was so saddened by it. My mom was smoking since she was 12 years old. I have tried so hard to make her quit. We were constantly fighting about it.

"But I've started to understand, you can't take responsibility for this. But one thing I will never regret is any fight we ever had about smoking."

Thérèse Rochette knew bad health was catching up to her. She suffered chest pains and took medication for high blood pressure. On the eve of the Olympics, she told her daughter she wanted to quit smoking and get in shape. The day before she died, Thérèse fell asleep on a bench waiting for Vancouver's SkyTrain. She was worn out from walking. She awoke embarrassed by her weakness.

"They wanted to take her to the doctor. But she was in Vancouver, she didn't feel at home. She didn't want to disturb people. She said 'No, just take me home, I'll be fine.' That night, my father could sense something was wrong. He turned on the light and saw her. They tried CPR, but nobody knew the right technique. I don't know if there was much to do."

Although weak near the end of her life, Thérèse was a tough Skater's Mom. It would be understandable if her daughter displayed some ambivalence about her multiple roles: mother, business manager, ass kicker.

Ms. Rochette, whose competitive mask doesn't fully cover a sensitive spirit, doesn't see it that way. One moment she describes her mother like an army drill sergeant. The next, she becomes the beneficent angel who hung over her every move.

"It sounds strange, but it's when I'm on the ice that I feel closest to my mother. Even if I'm in Japan skating, I feel closer to her than I do at home in Montreal," she says, unconsciously sticking to the present tense.

"She was very tough on me, too! But I don't blame her at all. I have the life I have now because of her, I have a little money in my pockets because of her, I can achieve my goals because of her."

The years of skating also helped Ms. Rochette prepare for what's happening now.

She has faced criticism for not going home to lend a shoulder to her father, Normand, a crane operator now facing a lonely retirement. Some find her frequent public appearances unseemly, as if the only way to grieve is hidden, in a black dress.

The petite figure skater has taken inspiration from a gruff bear. Ms. Rochette read a story about how Brian Burke, the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, lost his son and had to quickly get back to work running the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

"Some people were criticizing that too. When I read that, I thought to myself, I'm okay, I'm normal. I can identify with that guy."

There is only a brief window after the Olympics where people pay attention. Ms. Rochette sees interviews as payback to her fans, and the media who made her famous. She also acknowledges the attention is part of her reward for years of lonely work.

She hasn't decided on her future as a competitive skater, so she's still on the ice twice a day; it only takes a few weeks off for terminal rust to take hold. The two-month Stars on Ice tour in the spring will allow her to live and train the rest of the year. Besides, the clutch of Canadian figure skaters on tour are like family. Where else should an only child go when her mother has died?

She has been dating former figure skater Guillaume Gfeller for four months and sees a family of her own down the road someday. But for now, there's the ice.

"You know, in skating you wear a nice costume, makeup, you get your hair done, you go out there with a little smile and you fall on your bum. You're all alone," she says.

"If a hockey player falls, they get up, no big deal. For us, we're so easy to make fun of. You learn to get tough, and to have a shell around you and not care so much about what people say. You learn about yourself, to be your own best friend."

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