Each Olympics has their amazing stories, their high drama: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan battle in 1994, the underage Chinese gymnasts in 2000, the death of the Georgian luger and the major "oops" made by the Norwegian speed skater coach this year. It's a big reason why we are so drawn to these games every two years. But every now and then there is a story that transcends the sport itself - one that reminds us that these are not just skaters or gymnasts doing their thing every four years for their country and for our entertainment. They are human beings.
Witness Joannie Rochette, Canadian figure skater in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. By now I imagine everyone has heard her story. A decorated athlete in her country and in her sport, Rochette entered the Olympics poised to win a medal - which she did, taking the bronze. But the path she took to get there was far more difficult than the two ladies who stood higher on the platform. Two days before her short program, Rochette's mother died suddenly of a heart attack. She was in Vancouver to see her daughter skate, as she did every one of her competitions. Rochette got a frantic phone call Sunday to rush to the local hospital. Instead of seeing her mother alive she viewed the body. 48 hours later, she was scheduled to take the ice in the women's short program.
There is precious little Rochette and I have in common. I am, obviously, not a woman. I lived in Canada for a few months when I was a kid, but I'm not Canadian. And the few times I've taken to the ice were disasters compared to what this young lady can do on it. We do have one thing in common, though; something we have in common with lots of others. We have Moms and we love 'em. And in this particular situation I cannot fathom how Rochette kept skating. I know this is what she'd spent the last four years working for and everything, but it is hard to imagine the strength and courage it took to do such a thing.
In the end she did so, according to her interview with NBC's The Today Show after winning the bronze, because in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death, while still in shock, she made a promise to herself that she would skate. And even though many doubts crept in over the following 48 hours, she felt like she couldn't go back on her word. She did it for herself, her coach, her father (also in Vancouver) and for her country. And most importantly, she did it for her mother.
So she skated Tuesday night, which I missed. But I saw the video and pictures of her after the skate, the tears overflowing, the standing ovation. Two days later she took to the ice again for the long program. She was in the top six, the last group to skate, all vying for Olympic medals. The odds were stacked heavily against her. The young girl from Korea was freakishly good. The long program is nearly twice as long as the first; a crazy test of combined endurance and grace. She was on home soil, always an added pressure. And she was still bearing the heavy emotional burden of her mother's death in a sport where heavy emotions of any kind can spell disaster.
I watched her skate - according to the NBC commentators, who one assumes knows what they're talking about, it was a very clean skate. The emotions weren't as visible when she finished, but she still got another standing O. And in what will be for me THE image of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Joannie Rochette looked heavenward and blew a kiss to the air, presumably to her mother, before doing the same to her father in the stands. When all was said and done, Rochette scored enough points in the two programs to take home the bronze. It could be argued that no figure skater in the history of the Olympics was more deserving.
No one would've faulted Rochette if she bolted Vancouver the second that bronze medal was draped around her neck. Instead, she stayed. She did a couple of interviews with NBC the next day, where the topic of conversation was not just her bronze medal-winning skate but how she managed to do it in light of her grief. In each of the interviews she demonstrated amazing fortitude and grace, speaking openly and without reservation about the journey she had been on. Bob Costas, one of the most seasoned interviewers of our generation, seemed in awe of the 24-year old.
Rochette is certainly not the first athlete to play the game despite the loss of a parent. Who could forget that brilliant Monday night football game in 2003, when then-Green Bay QB Brett Farve led his team in a rout of the Raiders just one day after the death of his father? It was amazing. And not just because he threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns - a stellar game for any QB - but because he did so under the circumstances. I was in awe of Favre that night; still am.
But the thing is, Favre had fifty-some other guys with him. He had linemen to block for him, receivers to catch his passes, running backs to take the heat off. He had a defense who held the opposing team to a single touchdown. Not to diminish his accomplishment or his pain that night, but he was surrounded on the field by a band of gridiron brothers who most certainly played above-average inspired football, seeing the agony their leader was going through. As amazing as Favre was in that game, he had a lot of help.
This past week, Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette didn't have any teammates out there helping her complete triple axels and toe loops, all the while balancing ever-so precariously on two thin metal blades. As she took to her playing field it was just her and the crowd and the millions around the world watching her on TV. And she did it not once, but twice. Both times, Rochette was on the ice all by herself.
Well, I take that back. Perhaps her mother was there with her too. A winning combination for sure.