"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

joannie rochette

Many of you know that I am a huge sports fan. Here is one of the reasons why: plain, simple and mind boggling heroism. I'm talking about real heroism, the kind you are only privileged to catch glimpses of here and there in sports (or in life) but that brings you to your knees when you are fortunate enough to witness it. There have been some amazing personal stories in this year's Winter Olympics. Perhaps you already know about Joannie Rochette; even if you do this is a wonderful article to read (and cry through.) Her performance last night was nothing short of magical, inspirational and, yes - heroic.

"In the middle of last football season, Bengals coach Mike Zimmer suffered a horrific blow: His wife Vikki died suddenly at home.

That was on a Thursday. Zimmer coached that weekend, nonetheless.

Seven years ago, quarterback Brett Farve suffered the same blow: His father died on a Sunday. The next night, on Monday Night Football, Favre famously stood up to his grief to create one of the most memorable moments in his storied career. He led the Green Bay Packers to victory in what was called in some circles a transcendent performance.

Those weren't the first times we've witnessed those in athletics soldier on in the face of a most personal tragedy and loss. They won't, of course, be the last.

But what we witnessed a young Canadian figure skater named Joannie Rochette do late Tuesday night in a packed arena at the Vancouver Games was gut-wrenching on another level.

Here was a woman who on Sunday learned that her mother Therese died quite suddenly and extremely unexpectedly. She was just 55. But young Joannie hit the Olympic ice at the Pacific Coliseum nonetheless and proceeded to skate what turned out to be her best short performance of the season. She then melted into tears upon receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.

It must have felt to her like 50,000 hugs, and probably still not enough.

But Rochette, being a figure skater, most remarkably soldiered on by herself. She didn't have 50 some other teammates to lean on. She didn't have an offensive line and running backs and receivers to support her effort. She didn't even have a doubles partner.

All Rochette had for a few minutes was herself. She faced the music alone.

Her selection of music was utterly appropriate. It was the Uruguayan tango La Cumparsita. The lyrics begin: 'The little parade of endless miseries ...'

Rochette stood alone on the brightest and biggest stage she'd ever been on in her life, and with the weight of losing the foundation of her life pressing on her, she skated like she'd never skated before.

'Words cannot describe it,' Rochette said afterward in quotes relayed through Skate Canada's high performance director Mike Slipchuk. 'It's hard to be precise. I have no regrets. It was a very nice, warm welcome. Hard to handle, but I appreciate the support. I will remember this forever.'

Everyone who witnessed it will remember her performance forever too.

It reminded me of seeing singer and Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Hudson make her first performance since her mother, brother and nephew were murdered in Chicago -- at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla. Hudson suffered her loss in October, just over three months before she dared to hit the stage again. And when she did, she did so by singing the National Anthem to kick off a typical Super Bowl broadcast to upwards of 230 countries and territories and seen by at least 148 million Americans.

I don't know if doing this sort of thing should be called courageous. All I'm certain of is that it is remarkable. For any of us who've lost a relative so dear, we know what it is like just to get up the next morning or go to sleep that night.

Rochette did all of that and then some. She scored a 71.36, which wound up good enough to put her in the top-three skaters going into Thursday's longer skate.

Her mom had been her rock, her inspiration, her reason to skate and skate so well. She was shown on Canadian TV on Sunday being told the horrible news and, quite understandably, melting into tears.

Rochette wasn't originally supposed to be a medal favorite. The 24-year-old from a small town called Ile-Dupas, in Quebec, didn't even intend to be a figure skater. It was only because of her mother's encouragement, and the obvious talent young Joannie demonstrated and her determination to compete, that made her an Olympian for the first time in Turin four years ago. She finished fifth there. She came to the Vancouver Games with greater hopes, if not unrealistic.

Suddenly, after the toughest two days of her life, she is an Olympic medal contender. It is quite likely she'll have the entire world rooting for her, too.

It is enough to make me feel sorry for the judges who must critique her against others. How can any of them possibly dock her singular perseverance under such gut-wrenching circumstances?

Tuesday night at figure skating wasn't about medals, though. It wasn't about nationalism and jingoism and any other 'isms that can sink a world gathering like the Olympics.

Tuesday night was one night where the Olympics were about what they were envisioned to be about, a celebration of our humanity.

Here was a woman who we all knew was trying to stop from crumbling. Here was a woman who for a few minutes was no longer representing her country and its colors but was representing the world and all of us.

Here was a woman who the crowd tried to lift with its cheering as soon as she finished her routine and the tears of anguish began to pour.

These Olympics started with a horrific loss of its own, the Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili who lost his life training on the mountain. The flags went to half-mast. There were allegations of wrongdoing. It was as ugly a start as any Olympics has had. It made for divided games of the world.

But what unfolded Tuesday night in the women's short program was nothing short of unifying, and hopefully, for a young woman of the world, sustaining when she needed it the most."

- by Kevin Blackistone

Before Rochette took the ice, Bob Costas sat down with former speedskater Dan Jansen, who himself has some practice in performing on the world's biggest stage after the loss of a loved one. (Jansen's sister, Jane, died on the day of his 500m race in the Calgary Games.) Jansen said he sent Rochette an email in which he wrote the following:

"I dont know if you can prepare for the emotions you're going to feel out there, but if you can get through it there are millions of people supporting you. And most of all, skate with your mother in your heart."

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