VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Joannie Rochette skated with a broken heart, but somehow she skated, because that is what her mother would have wanted her to do.
A nation wept for Rochette, as did anyone who watched the brave young woman compete in the Olympic short program three nights after her mother died. Anyone who could feel even a fraction of her pain.
Rochette's mother, Therese, 55, always encouraged her only child to skate for herself, for her own personal fulfillment. But on Tuesday, Rochette skated for her mother, who had looked forward to this night for years.
It was to be their shared moment of pride.
But Therese was not in her customary place in the stands, where she had been self-proclaimed "No. 1 fan" of her daughter since she was a little girl wobbling across the ice.
Rochette said "words cannot describe" her grief.
Her performance was part tribute, part duty, part catharsis.
It was an act of incredible will that she took the ice. Even more incredible was her sparkling, spirited tango, free of any mistakes. She summoned saucy smiles and swaggering footwork because that is what she had practiced, countless times, with her mother as her most constructive critic. She stayed in character because the alternative was to fall apart.
Only after Rochette completed her program did the tears flow. Only after the last spin and the last note of her music did she allow herself to show emotion. Her sorrow could no longer be contained. She curtsied to the crowd, placed her hand to her heart and sobbed.
As she came off the ice, Rochette, 24, leaned into the arms of her coach, Manon Perron. In the kiss and cry area, she said a few words in French to her mother and her father, Normand.
Rochette scored 71.36 points, a season's best, which put her in third place, in contention for a medal when the long program is contested Thursday. South Korea's Kim Yu-Na was in first after breaking her own world record with a score of 78.50 and Japan’s Mao Asada was second.
There is no good time to lose a parent, but could there be a worse time than on the eve of the Olympics in your home country?
"Ten years from now I'd like to come back and do this again," Rochette said.
Therese Rochette died hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter compete. Her husband found her passed out in the apartment where they were staying early Sunday morning. She was rushed to Vancouver General hospital. Canadian skating officials said the probable cause of death was heart attack.
When Rochette skated out for her warmup with the five skaters in her group, she received a standing ovation from the crowd. A somber mood permeated the atmosphere at the Pacific Coliseum. Fans held signs: "Sympathy," "Condolences," "We Love You, Joannie." Before she began, she took a sip of water and a few deep breaths as her coach spoke to her.
Wearing a black dress decorated by red roses, Rochette landed her triple lutz-double toe loop combination, then a triple flip. The crowd's applause got louder as her program progressed. By the time she finished and bowed her head, red-eyed fans were cheering wildly.
Rochette, who trains in Montreal and grew up in the small town of Ile Dupas, is Canada's best hope for an Olympic medal in women's figure skating since Liz Manley won silver at the 1988 Calgary Games.
"It was hard to be precise," Rochette said. "It was very nice to hear the warm welcome. It was hard to handle but I appreciate the support."
Kim, playing the role of sultry secret agent while skating to a medley of song tracks from James Bond movies, held a commanding lead, as was expected for the reigning world champion. She nailed her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and concluded with a Biellmann spin.
Kim, 19, ended her graceful, playful program with a shot into the audience with her imaginary gun.
Asada landed the most difficult jump of the night with her opening triple axel-double toe loop. She tended to lose velocity on her spins but the former world champion earned 73.78 points skating to "Waltz Masquerade."
The Americans are about fourteen points behind Kim.
Rachael Flatt, in fifth, flubbed her triple lutz landing.
Mirai Nagasu scored 63.76 points despite being afflicted by a bloody nose halfway through her program.
"I felt stuff running down my nose and said, 'Don’t think about it, just keep going,'" she said.
She turned a planned triple-triple combination into a triple-double.
"The landing was a little funky so I think I made the right choice," she said. "I'm happy that in my first Olympics I didn't fall yet."
The night belonged to Rochette. For two minutes and 50 seconds, she could forestall a feeling of emptiness. For two minutes and 50 seconds, she could forget the finality of her mother's absence. If only she could keep skating.