- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Amid the tragedy, Joannie Rochette discovered an inner strength she didn’t know existed.

The Canadian figure skater’s mother died of a heart attack just before the Vancouver Games - Rochette’s home Olympics. Grief-stricken yet resolute in knowing Therese Rochette’s wish would have been for her to compete “and complete my dream,” Rochette skated.

And won bronze.

On the eve of the Sochi Games, which Rochette will attend as an analyst for Canadian TV and working with Team Visa, she looks back at 2010 with pride, not sadness, in her voice.

“That was the chance of a lifetime,” she said. “Any athlete wants to make it to the Olympics, but to make it in your own country … to make it and then not be able to skate in my own country was not what my mom would have wanted for me.

“I knew I was strong. I did not know I was that strong, to have one of my parents die a few days before; you can never be prepared for that. I saw skaters who would come back a week later and I would wonder how they are able to keep functioning. When it happens to you, you get that strength, and I don’t know where it comes from. We are built that way as athletes, I guess.”

Perhaps. But her courage in the midst of such grief was inspirational - to other Olympians, to fans. To everyone, really.

Rochette took the ice for practice just hours after her mother’s death. Four days later, she mesmerized the crowd and many of her peers with a stunning free skate that earned her bronze. A few days later, Canadian teammates chose her to carry the flag at the closing ceremony.

“In Vancouver, I learned no matter how prepared you are for a competition - you plan well in advance for the Olympics, of course, on and off ice - you need to be flexible with that plan and can never know what can happen,” she said. “Winners are those who can go with it.”

With the support of her “strong team” - her father and boyfriend, her coach and sports psychologist - she made it.

“I knew I might be alone on the ice, but without them I would not ever be able to skate,” Rochette said. “That was the moment I was training for my whole life. The Olympics come once every four years. I was 24 and at my peak, and it was do it then or do it never.

“There was no option during the games to go back home for me.”

The four-year cycle has run its course again, and Rochette actually had some thoughts about a comeback for these Olympics. Had she been a speed skater or skier, she might have attempted it because they have no other outlets to show off their skills or express themselves within their sport.

But Rochette stars in a steady stream of skating shows. She’ll headline “Stars on Ice” when it tours this spring and summer. That brings her fulfillment.

She also spends time visiting Third World countries with World Vision and with Right to Play. Rochette has been to Peru, Honduras and Rwanda since the 2010 Olympics.

“You get to see the work that those organizations are doing in those countries, so far from us,” she said. “When we see there are these organizations, we don’t know where that money goes and what happens to it. I got to see that. I got to see these young people - they want to change the way they live and make themselves leaders in their own community.

“It might be as simple as to start maybe a chicken farm. But it is what they try for.”

In Rwanda, she recognized the need to change the mentality of the parents, who had been taught to bring their kids to the fields to work and not to school. That saddened her, but she also took heart when playing with the children and seeing their enthusiasm and their desire to succeed.

“Maybe,” Rochette said, “to change the life of one person would be the reward.”

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