VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A grieving Joannie Rochette held her nerve for three incredible minutes on Tuesday and dazzled the crowd with a short program that left her third at the halfway stage of the Olympic women’s figure skating event.
South Korean Kim Yuna led after a record-breaking display but it was Canadian Rochette who stole the show after dissolving into tears following a near faultless performance just two days after her mother’s sudden death.
“Words cannot describe (how I feel),” she said in a statement read by Skate Canada’s high performance director Mike Slipchuk.
”It’s hard to be precise but 10 years from now I’d want to come back and try this again -- I have no regrets.
“(It was a) very nice warm welcome, hard to handle but I appreciate the support. I’ll remember this forever.”
The six-times Canadian champion had somehow managed to put on a brave face in public throughout the past 48 hours despite the personal torment she has been going through since her father broke the tragic news to her early on Sunday morning.
She brought a lump to everyone’s throat on Tuesday when she took to the ice looking remarkably composed and maintained that aura of calm during her sultry performance to La Cumparsita.
‘HAD ME IN TEARS’
When the music ended, the crowd leapt to their feet and an emotional Rochette could no longer hold back the tears.
With her right hand on her heart, and shaking with emotion, the 24-year-old bowed to all corners of the Pacific Coliseum before skating off the ice and into the arms of her coach Manon Perron.
She was rewarded for her courage with a score of 71.36 points to stand third behind Yuna and Japan’s Mao Asada.
“I am not someone who is prone to feeling a lot of emotions but my heart went out for her and she had me in tears. The level at which she skated was phenomenal,” said Skate Canada CEO William Thompson.
”It was a performance that was magical and so heroic. It’s an incredible story. I think her mother is jumping up and down up in the sky watching her.
Her father was in the arena and asked what Rochette’s relatives would have made of her performance, Thompson added: ”To see that I‘m sure it’s a mixture of incredible pride and incredible joy and sorrow that her mother was not there to experience it.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that she was inspired by her mum.”
Yuna broke her own record for the highest score in a women’s short program with 78.50 for her dramatic “Bond Girl” routine and Asada earned 73.78.
Until Sunday, the event had been built up as a showdown between Asia’s two 19-year-old superstars but Sunday’s heart-breaking turn of events meant no matter what happened on the ice, it would be Rochette’s night.
Canadian Olympic Committee team leader Nathalie Lambert had predicted Rochette would “receive a wind of love when she stepped on the ice” and she was not wrong.
Sporting rivalries were put on hold as for the first time on Tuesday evening as hundreds of Canadian, American, Japanese, Korean and Finnish flags were waved in unison when Rochette’s name was announced over the PA system.
The skater breathed deeply, took a swig of water from a bottle and exchanged high fives with her coach before gliding to her start position for her tango routine in a black dress which featured a single stem rose draped around her back.
The crowd roared when Rochette landed her opening triple Lutz-double toeloop combination, they hollered when she nailed her triple flip, they cheered when she performed her fast paced circular step sequence full of staccato movements and then they leapt to their feet when she held her final pose.
She smiled beautifully into the camera as she stood still for a few seconds with both hands on her hip, and perhaps feeling the embrace of 12,000 pairs of arms wrap around her, she finally crumbled into tears as dozens of bouquets started to rain down on the ice.
She wept when her score flashed up -- a mark that put her in the running to become the first Canadian woman to win an Olympic figure skating medal since Elizabeth Manley claimed silver in 1988.
Editing by Jon Bramley