Rochette's mother dies in Vancouver

Updated: February 21, 2010, 5:57 PM ET
Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- A few hours after learning of her mother's sudden death, Canadian figure skating star Joannie Rochette was back on the ice.

Dressed in black tights and a black Canadian team hoodie, Rochette appeared in the runway as the rest of the skaters in her practice session took the ice Sunday afternoon. She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath before stepping on the ice, then gave a little wave to her father, the only spectator who was allowed in the building -- cleared about 45 minutes earlier for the security sweep before the original dance.

[+] EnlargeJoannie Rochette
AP Photo/Mark BakerJoannie Rochette, right, and her coach Manon Perron arrive at Sunday's first practice session. Rochette practiced despite the death of her mother hours earlier.

Therese Rochette, 55, had a massive heart attack after arriving in Vancouver on Saturday, said David Baden, Rochette's agent. She was taken to a Vancouver hospital, where she was pronounced dead early Sunday, Skate Canada said.

"She's so close to her mother, I think she doesn't even entertain not skating," Baden said. "She's a tough fighter. It's got to be hard to switch gears and say no to [the Olympics]. This is what she has been training for all these years. She'll be trying to fulfill the goal they had together."

Rochette will not talk until after she finishes competing, Skate Canada president Benoit Lavoie said. The women's event begins Tuesday with the short program.

"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 was blinking hard her first few laps around the ice, but then seemed to settle into the comfort of her practice routine. She showed no lapses in concentration, jumped well and did a light run-through of her tango short program. She was applauded by the few people in the rink after her program and again when she left the ice.

"It's a tragedy. I'm sort of in shock by it," said Brian Orser, who got to know Rochette's parents when he was touring with her on "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."

Joannie Rochette has been in Vancouver since the opening ceremony, and her parents arrived Saturday from their home in Montreal. Baden said Therese and Normand Rochette visited Canada House and then went back to the apartment where they're staying. Normand Rochette later found his wife passed out and, when he was unable to revive her, took her to Vancouver General.

Normand Rochette went to the Olympic village early Sunday to tell his daughter of her mother's death. He repeatedly wiped his eyes as he sat in the stands and watched his daughter's practice.

Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's director of high performance, said the Canadian team was told about Rochette's mother's death before the news was announced publicly.

"We'll do our best to manage it, but our first thoughts are with Jo and her family," Slipchuk said. "We'll go step by step."

Rochette plans to continue staying in the Olympic village, but she'll be given her own room. She had been rooming with Canadian ice dancer Tessa Virtue. Skate Canada is also being careful not to crowd Rochette, letting her work through her emotions with her father and Manon Perron, her coach since she was a child.

Perron appeared to be working hard to keep things light during Rochette's practice, smiling and laughing during their frequent chats at the boards.

"They went through a lot together, and that's what's made it so strong for them in their relationship," Lavoie said. "I could see Manon was the right person to be with her."

If Rochette needs other people to lean on, she can count on the support of her fellow skaters -- from Canada and beyond. The news spread quickly during practices at the Pacific Coliseum, and Rochette's competitors were united in sympathy for her.

World champion Kim Yu-na, who trains with Orser in Toronto, said she "really felt sorry" for Rochette.

"I can't even imagine what she's going through," Frank Carroll, who coaches Mirai Nagasu and men's gold medalist Evan Lysacek, said, shaking his head. "It takes such strength to get out there and control your emotions just under normal circumstances. ... It's horrible. Horrible."

Added U.S. champion Rachael Flatt: "That's really hard. I can't imagine losing your mother, let alone at the Olympics."

Jeff Buttle, the 2006 Olympic bronze medalist and a good friend of Rochette's said he was "shocked and saddened" when he learned the news.

"Joannie is a strong person, and I am there to help and support her in any way possible," Buttle said in a statement. "The best thing we can do for her is to respect her privacy at this time."

As the reigning world silver medalist, Rochette is Canada's best chance to win an Olympic medal since Liz Manley won the silver in 1988, the last time the games were in Canada.

"A medal would mean so much to me," the six-time Canadian champion said earlier in the games. "But I'm trying not to think too much because I want to be happy in my performance and happy in my career. I don't want to define my life by what happened here."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press