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Joannie Rochette Wins Bronze Days After Mother's Sudden Death

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — At the end of her medal-winning skate, Joannie Rochette threw back her head and blew a kiss to the heavens.

That was for you, mom.

Four days after her mother's death, Rochette won the women's figure skating bronze Thursday night. It felt like gold to everyone who saw her skate – to the hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions around the world for whom the Vancouver Olympics will always be remembered, in part, for Rochette's courage.

Her mother, who used to drive her to skating practice as a kid, died Sunday of a heart attack just a few hours after arriving in Vancouver to watch her daughter's crowning moment, competing as a medal favorite at the Winter Games on home soil. Therese Rochette was 55.

"It was six in the morning when I heard the news," the 24-year-old Rochette said, speaking publicly for the first time about her loss. "I couldn't really believe it. They took me to the hospital to see mom's body. I was able to say my goodbyes."

She skated in practice that afternoon, dressed in black, wiping her eyes and taking a deep breath before stepping on the ice.

"There were moments when I said to myself, 'I really don't want to do this. I want to take the first plane, go home, see my grandparents, my family.' But I said to myself that in 10 years time, when I would think about all of this and when my mourning would be over, I would probably have wished that I had skated here," she said.

"That was the way that mom raised me, to be faithful to the person that she made of me, to make her proud."

Mourning, in the West at least, is often a private, family affair. Rochette had to live hers in the glare of the Olympic spotlight. What strength that took.

Figure skating is not a sport that takes kindly to emotion. Skaters must bottle up their nerves, their fears, their doubts, even their grief, to complete their jumps and spins that require such total physical and mental control.

On Tuesday, in her short program that left few dry eyes in the house, Rochette fought back tears on the ice and wept openly when she was finished.

Those who have lost a parent were reminded of their own loss. Those who have not, wondered whether they would be so strong in the same situation.

Rochette's third place gave her a chance in the free skate to become the first Canadian since silver medalist Liz Manley in 1988 to stand on the podium.

For four minutes, she shut her emotions off. She exchanged hand slaps with her coach, Manon Perron, before she took to the ice in a lagoon-blue dress. The crowd roared encouragement at each clean jump she executed. At the end, she blew fans a two-handed kiss and another toward the roof. She had done it. It was her best-ever free skate.

"I tried to be as cold as ice as possible. I know it's going to sound weird but I couldn't be out there and be just a person, I had to be Joannie the athlete," she said. "I really tried to be strong to make my mother proud and my father who was in the stands."

By her last jump, a triple salchow, she was drained from her week of little sleep and much sadness. "I'm sure that my mom was there lifting me up because I had no more legs," she said.

"This is for my mom," she said, holding up her bronze medal.

One person Rochette talked to for help and understanding this week was Sylvie Frechette, who competed as a synchronized swimmer in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics while mourning the death of her fiance.

Sports psychologist Wayne Halliwell also spent time with Rochette, helping her to focus on her skating, not her loss.

"A lot of the words we used during the week were 'get immersed, get absorbed, get connected and savor this special moment,'" he said.

Rochette had been relishing her Olympic moment before her mother's death. She tweeted "Vancouver baby!" when she flew in and "What an amazing feeling to walk in the stadium!" from the opening ceremonies.

She watched Evan Lysacek skate to men's gold and was so excited to have bumped into tennis star Marat Safin that she uploaded a photo of herself with the towering Russian. At just 5-foot-2 (1.57 meters), the top of her head did not even level with his shoulders.

She said she will stay in Vancouver until the games end Sunday.

"I want to live my Olympic experience to the full," she said. "That is what mom would have wanted."

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org.

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