Find speakers by:
Request more info

The Staggering Grief and Incredible Grace of Olympian Joannie Rochette

The Staggering Grief and Incredible Grace of Olympian Joannie Rochette

Heading into the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Joannie Rochette felt immense pressure to make the podium as a six-time Canadian figure skating champ. The nation had high hopes, comparing her endlessly to Elizabeth Manley, whose silver medal at the 1988 games was the most recent podium finish by a Canadian women’s figure skater.

After a rocky start to her 2009/2010 season, Joannie came home with a bronze — a podium win made even more extraordinary as it came just days after the sudden death of her mother. Joannie joined CBC Sports Oral Histories to reflect on the trauma and triumph of her Olympic experience.

Preparing for the Olympics

Bumpy performances in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics led Joannie to seek solitude at home. She needed a reset and a mental break from a trying pre-Olympics season.

“I needed some help from my family because I was so sick of everyone talking about the Olympics and seeing ads on television,” Joannie told CBC Sports. “Olympic season is very stressful, and you want everything to be perfect.”

After a break, Joannie returned to the ice in January to win a sixth Canadian women’s title from her best performance of the season.

Joannie was joined in conversation with CBC Sports by her long-time coach Manon Perron. Manon said:

An Olympic year, especially in your country, is always super stressful. At nationals after a reset everything was going well. She was solid, physically and mentally. I was not worried for her going for a medal at the Olympics because for Joannie, three weeks of amazing training would make her really good.

It was time to shine [in Vancouver]. She was doing a lot of training, run throughs and almost perfect all the time.

Tragedy at the 2010 Vancouver Games

Joannie arrived in Vancouver ready to compete. Nationals gave her the boost of confidence she needed, and she arrived armed with words of wisdom from her podium predecessor Elizabeth Manley who was at Joannie’s pre-Olympic camp. She told Joannie, “you have to believe in you because I do. I believe you will be the next [Canadian women’s Olympic figure skating medallist] and I’m giving you all my energy.”

But just two days before the women’s short program, Joannie’s mother died from a massive heart attack one day after she arrived in Vancouver to cheer for her daughter. Recalling that day, Joannie said:

It is kind of a blur, but I remember my dad [Normand] left me a voicemail on my phone at midnight or one in the morning. He said, ‘Something’s not right. Call me back, please, it’s urgent.’ The power on my [cell] phone wasn’t on and I got the message at six in the morning. When I called him he said, ‘Don’t move, we’re coming to you.’

I was confused because I was in the [Olympic] Village and [wondered] how could he be coming here? I opened the door and I think it was my dad, Wayne Halliwell, my coach and a family friend from Montreal. I realized my mom was not there and it was probably something going on with her.

I thought maybe she went to the hospital because in the voicemail [from my dad] I could hear an ambulance siren. I didn’t think they would tell me she had passed away. I was shocked and thought ‘maybe I’ll wake up from a bad dream.’

Almost right away we went to the hospital and I got to see my mom. I took her socks and kept them, so that was a piece of her I could take.

Beating All Odds

It didn’t take long for Joannie to decide that she would still compete in the short program. She was going to do it for her mom. Reflecting on the day of the event, Joannie said:

Waking up the morning of the short program, the wait feels like forever and it’s so stressful and nerve-wracking.

Usually when I warmed up with my coach I loved to joke around and talk about other things but that day it was hard to joke around.

I could feel the heaviness [of the moment] and everyone was walking on eggshells. There was a lot of crying, of course, but I tried to focus on my skate and keep my mind clear. Once you get on the ice, you feel better.

On February 23, 2010, Joannie gave one of her best performances of her career earning a personal best with her short program.

Her coach, Manon said:

I remember just before the Lutz she almost tripped and I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s over’ and then she skated back and did that triple Lutz. I knew how strong Joannie was. When she decided to do something, she was doing it, and I knew she would be able to manage.

Before she entered [the ice] I said, ‘It’s going to be loud or maybe total silence. Are you ready for both situations? And she said, ‘Yes.’ When you’re well-trained, you erase all the thoughts coming into your mind and skate, and that’s what she did.

It was incredible to see all the other skaters, the media, other coaches, the public. They really pushed Joannie.

Two days later, Joannie gave another strong performance in the free skate. After an awkward landing on a triple flip, she was able to regain her composure and continue wowing the crowd and the judges with her spiral sequence and all remaining jumps. She earned her bronze medal.

“The long program was not [the performance] I was hoping for,” Joannie said. “I made two small mistakes and hoped I still had enough [to stay in medal position]. I felt exhausted at the end and felt I had given my all.”

Watching Joannie, Manon knew she was witnessing something extraordinary. She had never seen Joannie skate like that. She was proud, and she knew her mom, a staunch supporter of her daughter’s career, would be too.

“After the first jump I knew [she would medal] with the energy she was letting out and her power,” Manon said. “I was confident about that long program.”

Joannie was named the Canadian flag bearer for the closing ceremony with the chef de mission saying that she had earned the position because of her “grace and courage under pressure.”

“In the moment I didn’t know if I should do it,” Joannie said. “So many people had won gold medals and were in a more celebrating mood. At the same time, I felt everyone in Canada carried me [to the medal podium] and I wanted to say thank you and it would be a perfect celebration. I was able to enjoy every second of that moment and I’m grateful and humbled I was picked as flag-bearer.”

Moving Forward

Joannie retired from international skating in 2010. She pulled out of the figure skating world championships in March 2010 stating that she needed a break after the emotional toll of her mother’s death and her bronze-medal performance. She went on to participate in professional skating shows and worked as a commentator with CBC French-language radio at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. In 2018, she enrolled in medical school at McGill University and graduated in 2020, fulfilling another life-long dream.

“I realized life is so short and needed to be making the most out of it,” Joannie told CBC. “I [was] 24 and if I die at my mom’s age, I probably have 30 years left, so it’s not that much. My vision of life changed a little bit at that moment.”

As a keynote speaker, Joannie continues to inspire Canadians from coast to coast. She speaks with warmth and candour about following your dreams and overcoming challenges.

Interested in learning more about Joannie and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].