Skating and skiing through adversity

After winning a record breaking 14 gold medals at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver last month the Canadians had a great choice of champions to carry the flag at the closing ceremony at British Columbia Place. However, instead of going for gold, bronze medalist in the women’s figure skating Joannie Rochette was selected as the flag barer. The metal of her medal may not have been as precious as some of her compatriots but the circumstances in which Rochette won her medal truly were.
Just two days before taking to the ice for the short programme, the first stage of the women’s figure skating competition, Rochette’s mother Thérèse suffered a sudden massive heart attack and was rushed to hospital in Vancouver where she passed away. She had just arrived from Montreal with her husband Normand to cheer their daughter on.
Naturally a grief stricken Rochette considered pulling out of the competition in order to mourn with her family. After much reflection and an outpouring of public support through out Canada and around the world, the 24 year-old figure skater decided with the support of her coach Manon Perron and father to skate on in memory of her mother.
Thérèse Rochette had spent the last ten years following her only child across Canada and the globe, making along with her husband huge financial sacrifices that had paid off with Joannie being seen as a strong medal contender in Vancouver. In interviews the Olympian often described her mother as “my best friend and the first person I always call when I have good news or if there is a problem.”
Growing up in the village of Île Dupas in the province of Quebec, a native French speaker Rochette first donned skates at the tender age of 22 months and was encouraged as she got older by her father who was the local ice-hockey coach.
When she first stepped onto the ice for her short programme Rochette was greeted with boisterous support from the capacity crowd in the Pacific Coliseum. The BBC commentary duo of veteran sports broadcaster Sue Barker and figure skating expert and former single men’s gold medalist Robin Cousins willed on the young Canadian to land every double axel, triple flip and triple loop and the emotion could be heard in their voices as she gave a poised, technically excellent yet passionate performance.
Once the music had faded the emotion of what she had just done could be seen across her face and in the “kiss and cry” area when she awaited the judges’ scores she broke into tears saying in French “this is for you”. Despite the emotional turmoil of the previous few days Rochette received a season’s best score of 71.36, the third best score of the night.
Two days later Rochette came back to skate her free programme to Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saëns and in spite of a miss-timed landing on a triple flip she held out to secure Olympic bronze behind South Korean teen sensation Yu-Na Kim and the graceful Japanese Mao Asada, winning gold and silver respectively. Once again Barker and Cousins gave an emotionally charged commentary and like many watching in Canada and around the world they were choking back the tears as Rochette glided off the ice to rapturous applause.
Afterwards Rochette explained that her mother had been her inspiration after an extremely stressful four days “I didn’t have much strength,” she said. “I didn’t sleep much. But that last triple, my mom was lifting me up because I had no more legs. I really feel that it happened.”
Upon return to her home province of Quebec, the bronze medalist gave an emotional press conference in Montreal citing that part of the reason she decided to skate in honor of her mother was after she was sent a message from an eight year old girl who had also recently lost her mother encouraging her in the Olympics. She asked for privacy to grieve for her mother and for time to allow the events of Vancouver to sink in. She confirmed she will take part in the World Figure Skating Championships in Turin at the end of the month.
Rochette was not the only Winter Olympian to triumph in the face of adversity during the Vancouver games. Slovenian cross-country skier Petra Majdic came into the games as a favourite in the individual classical sprint and the classical 30 kilometre race after strong performances in both the Salt Lake City and Torino Winter Olympics.
Majdic’s chances of reaching the podium in British Columbia looked to be over after she experienced a horrific fall into a deep gully, sliding on her back on a sharp curve and tumbling a further three metres onto rock during training before the classical sprint. The 30 year-old emerged from the accident with five broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Against all the odds, the hardy Slovenian insisted on competing with her face contorted in pain as she skied. She barely made it into the final but through sheer grit and determination she fought until the very end winning bronze, the first ever cross-country medal for Slovenia. She explained how she managed to get the finish line “At that moment I was thinking ‘It’s over, but the second part of me was just screaming ‘I want to go to the finish.’”
After the race, the skier hobbled up on the podium for the flower ceremony and needed an escort to prop her up when walking to the news conference who helped her into her chair as she grimaced with pain. Majdic then expounded on what her medal meant to her “Today, this is not a bronze,” she said. “This is a gold with little diamonds on it!”
Like Rochette, the Ljubljana native was asked to carry her country’s flag in the closing ceremony but was unable to as she was in hospital recovering from her injuries and exhaustion. She gained a special place in the hearts of the Canadians and along with the courageous figure skater was honored with the Terry Fox Award at an emotional ceremony in Vancouver.
This award was created by the Fox family and the Vancouver Organizing Committee in order to honour Olympians who embodied the same spirit as Terry Fox, the young amputee who lost a leg to cancer yet set out to run across Canada in 1980 in his Marathon of Hope to raise funds for cancer research. Fox died of cancer before he could complete this but the legacy of his courage and determination lives on today through a foundation in his name.
Rochette and Majdic may not be golden girls but both have created great Olympic moments that will be remembered for many years to come. By over coming personal loss and pain they inspired the people of Canada and Slovenia and millions of sports fans worldwide.