Under a floodlight illuminating an exit at Pacific Coliseum last Thursday night, Manon Perron pulled a pair of borrowed eyeglasses from the quilted black pocket of her Team Canada jacket. The oval frames were the bright blue of Windex and sparkled in the fluorescent glow—eyewear for the audacious. The glasses were also missing one lens. "Look, it popped out," said Perron with a smile, sticking her thumb through the hole. "I was squeezing them so hard."
This is an article from the March 8, 2010 issue
Perron was holding on to a part of Therese Rochette. At age 55, Therese died from a heart attack in the early hours of Feb. 21, not long after she had arrived in Vancouver from Montreal, to see her 24-year-old daughter, Joannie, skate in the Olympics. "I asked for Therese's glasses," said Perron, Joannie's longtime coach. "I wanted her to be here, see it in a way. I told Joannie, 'Your mother's not missing this.'" Perron had gripped the frames like a rosary as Joannie put one skate in front of the other in the long program, staying a step ahead of the grief and exhaustion. Two days earlier she had relied on muscle memory for her short program. Now she was on fumes with a medal on the line.
The night before she died, Therese told her daughter over the phone, "You can do it, Joannie. You can do it." So in the gray corridors of the arena, well before her long-program cue, Joannie had visualized herself in an icebox, cut off, cold and determined. "I needed to be like that to face everything," she explained later. Joannie burrowed into her routine, checking off each element, even completing a triple Lutz that had bedeviled her in pre-Olympic practices. Mom was right: Joannie won bronze.
Therese always knew what buttons to push. When Joannie fretted over a performance, Therese calmed her. When Joannie was too boastful, she humbled her. "If I'd get a 98 at school, she'd say, 'Joannie, why did you lose those two points?'" Joannie recalled after an emotional medal ceremony. Her makeup was tear-streaked, her voice caught at times, but Joannie also laughed as she described her mother as one part compassionate, two parts competitive. "Even though she's not here anymore, I'm not afraid to say it: Sometimes she was a pain in the ass," Joannie said, candid and colorful, just like her mother.
To help Joannie as she mourned in front of the whole world, Canadian singer Celine Dion sent flowers, well-wishers wrote e-mails and text messages by the thousands, and, as she completed the last revolution of her final spin to end her night, a sellout crowd in need of an Olympic-sized Kleenex delivered a standing ovation. It was a dizzying outpouring of love, punctuating a week that began with Joannie's father, Normand, driving to the Olympic village to tell her the news. "She was shocked and crying," said Perron. "She could not believe it." The disbelief quickly led to a pressing question: Would—or could—Joannie still compete? No one would have blamed her if she'd gone home.
But in some ways Vancouver was the best place for her to be. One legacy of these Games will be how often they provided a passage to healing for more athletes than anyone can remember. This was American aerialist Jeret Peterson, who has battled addiction and twice attempted suicide over the years, after winning the silver medal by landing the impossibly twisted Hurricane move: "Doing things that don't cause guilt allows me to focus on what brings me joy." This was U.S. skier Bode Miller, a self-sabotaging barfly at the 2006 Turin Games, after taking a gold medal last week and realizing that rebels need validation too: "I wanted to win; I needed it." This was skicross star Chris Del Bosco of Canada, a recovering alcoholic and nearly lost his life during a drinking binge in 2004, after losing a bronze medal on a last-turn crash: "Being part of this team helped me to live again."
The Olympics is triumph's pulpit. The gospel is simple: Try. Joannie kept going. "I knew she would want to escape into [skating], and she would come back and go for the medal," said Perron. "She is not a quitter." After Joannie ended her long program, she awaited her scores and looked into the TV camera. "Usually I start by saying, 'Hi, Mom,'" she said later. She stopped herself. She was aware of the obvious: The skate was part of a routine, but everything else was different now. Instead, she explained, "I said hi to my home town instead."
In a few weeks, when the cameras have moved on, Joannie will find herself alone with her grief. You worry about some athletes—like those who pour themselves into the Olympics to avoid their problems—but Joannie wasn't in denial. "For those four minutes [of the long program], I could only think of skating," she said. "I could be in my own bubble." She allowed the Olympic moment to take her away, if only briefly. "I was able to compete," Joannie said. "My mother taught me that."
Nothing is easy, Therese would tell her. Joannie's mom never liked rose-colored glasses.
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