In wake of loss, Rochette inspires

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- How could anyone possibly quantify what Joannie Rochette did Tuesday night? It defied any scoring system. It defied belief.

The crowd at the Pacific Coliseum roared when Rochette and four other figure skaters spilled onto the ice to warm up for the ladies' short program, then quieted. If you hadn't been aware of the cataclysmic event that had just cleaved her life into two parts, Before and After, you never would have known that anything was different about the 24-year old from small-town Quebec. This is Rochette's home country, after all, and a fervent welcome was only to be expected.

Rochette looked calm and professional going through her paces, just as she has in training sessions since her mother, Therese, died of an apparent heart attack in a Vancouver hospital early Sunday morning. As the rink emptied, she skated to the boards to speak to her coach, then took a deep breath, in and out.

The arena hushed and the music started. The strains of "La Cumparsita," one of the most famous tangos in the world, seemed almost jarringly recognizable in a situation that had almost no precedent.

Rochette gracefully unfolded from her starting pose and began to glide forward, into territory that couldn't have been more familiar, yet completely unknown. Skaters train for every possible contingency; they train through injury, colds, jet lag, romantic breakups and fights with their coaches. No one could be prepared to compete in the most important moment of a career less than 72 hours after losing a parent, but Rochette had made it clear from her actions that it was best for her to repeat the movements that have become a second skin to her over months of endless repetition, to control what she could control.

The crowd hushed. Rochette picked up speed as she cut a backwards diagonal path across the ice, coiled and lifted off.

Triple lutz, double toe combination. High and clean.

At the CTV broadcast position in the stands, 1988 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley felt her throat constrict and her eyes well up, overwhelmed by the occasion and by the raw, recent memory of losing her own mother. She didn't speak for the rest of the program.

"I know I'm going to get a lot of flak back home," Manley said. "I couldn't hold back the tears. I can't fathom losing your parent at the Olympic Games, the moment you've worked your whole life for. She could have fallen 10 times tonight and I would have felt the same way. It's a gold medal to me just to see her get out there."

Rochette executed a big triple flip, then a precise footwork sequence, then a double axel. The crowd exhaled and cheered more heartily. In the stands, American ice dancer Evan Bates felt his facial muscles working, and finally gave in.

"I was bawling my eyes out up there," Bates said. "I have so much admiration for her. It was one of the most moving performances I've ever seen."

The crowd exhaled after Rochette's last planned jump, and even began to clap in rhythm with the music, but that faded quickly as if people were unsure of the right thing to do. Rochette kept skating: a spiral sequence, a lay-back spin.

Former Olympic pairs skater Peter Carruthers had two thoughts as Rochette, looking very close to her usual cool and sultry self, continued to tick off her required elements. "What a remarkable display of courage," he said afterward. "Truly spiritual."

He said an elite athlete's discipline is so ingrained that Rochette's ability to compete, which might seem superhuman to a layperson, may have actually been second nature, comforting, a source of strength. "It's a switch you turn on," he said. "If you're trained, you can do it. It's a survival instinct. She's surviving."

When Rochette finished, she dipped her head and then came up for air, mouthing a message to her mother in her native French. Her hand flew to her heart and she fought for composure, her expressive face twisting back and forth between sorrow and gratitude as waves of sympathetic cheering washed over her.

The judges then had the unenviable task of trying to assign grades of excellence and split decimal points for Rochette in a way that did justice to her work and not her circumstances. What they came up with was her highest-ever point total in a short program and good enough for third place, which is where many prognosticators had picked Rochette to finish before tragedy intervened.

Rochette relayed brief comments through Skate Canada executive Mike Slipchuk. The crowd's warmth, Rochette said, was "hard to handle, but I appreciate the support."

William Thompson, Skate Canada's CEO, added his own thoughts. "I saw her as she was getting ready to skate and she looked like she was struggling emotionally, and then she just pulled herself together and went out and put down a performance that -- where she came [in] was irrelevant at that point to me," he said. "I just thought she put down a performance that was magical and so heroic."

It would be unrealistic to list Rochette in athletic parlance as anything but day-to-day. Who knows if she can remain this focused through Thursday night's free skate, when she'll have to spend almost twice as long on the ice with a medal on the line. Who knows how she might be affected by the fact that her pursuit of the podium now stands second to a much greater emotion.

"Right now, this is keeping her standing on her feet," Manley said.

That's the most important thing in figure skating under any conditions. Rochette's performance gave new meaning to the phrase "personal best." It's hard to imagine anyone doing better.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.