After Mom's Death, Canadian Skater Wows Crowd The women's figure skating competition began Tuesday night at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. South Korea's Kim Yu-Na is well out in front of the pack, after skating a nearly flawless short program. Japan's Mao Asada finished the event in second place. But the biggest ovation came for Canadian Joannie Rochette. She skated into third place just two days after her mother died unexpectedly.
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After Mom's Death, Canadian Skater Wows Crowd

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After Mom's Death, Canadian Skater Wows Crowd

After Mom's Death, Canadian Skater Wows Crowd

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Two Asian stars are fighting for the gold in women's figure skating at the Olympics. South Korea's Kim Yu-Na is in first place and her longtime rival, Japan's Mao Asada, is in second.

Our sports correspondent Tom Goldman says the skater in third place stole the show in last night's short program. Tom, how so?

TOM GOLDMAN: Well, Steve, Canada's Joannie Rochette is in third place, and I suppose it's amazing that she's not only in third place but that she even got on the ice to skate. Her mom died of a heart attack two days ago, after arriving in Vancouver to watch Rochette skate in the Olympics. And her mom was an integral part of her skating career. This was going to be their shared moment - quite possibly a triumphant moment.

Joannie was a silver medalist at the World Championships last year. So going in, she had a definite shot. And then after this shocking news Sunday, she announced she'd still skate. And last night, she did - and she did it so well. She hit her first jump combination, and the crowd went wild. She landed her other jumps cleanly. She performed all the required spins and footwork beautifully. Here's how it sounded as her routine came to an end.


GOLDMAN: Now, as you can hear, Steve, the crowd went wild, and Rochette came apart. She cried as she took her bows, and she skated off the ice and into her coach's arms. She got really good scores that put her in third place. And then, she stood - she was still crying - she blew a kiss to the crowd, covered her heart with her hand, and then she sat back down and stayed in the kiss-and-cry area.

The skaters usually leave after they get their scores, but she couldn't move. She was sobbing. Her coach kept hugging her, and then she finally got up and walked off. She was propped up by a couple of people - very, very dramatic moment.

INSKEEP: Well, there's always a lot of emotion in that sport, of course, but this is deeper than anything that you would normally see. How did she get through that?

GOLDMAN: A lot of it, I think, is athletes' training taking over. You know, all the Olympic athletes are here because they've learned incredible mental toughness - the ability to focus and block things out. And I think there's also shock and disbelief with sudden death like that, that somehow steels you.

Interestingly, a number of people helping Rochette are athletes who've experienced loss the same way - on the eve or in the midst of an Olympics - and several of them won medals. And Rochette could join that list if she performs well again, in Thursday's free skate.

INSKEEP: All this performance must be a relief to Canadians, who are probably still crushed over their hockey team.

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah, and a lot of other things. The Canadian athletes have been taking some heat for disappointing performances. But, you know, after two straight nights of figure skaters performing in a really, a transcendent way - Monday, you had Canadian ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir give perhaps the greatest ice-dance performance ever.

It was this spellbinding, gorgeous thing, and it lifted the country. And then last night, you've got Rochette with this astoundingly tough performance. Gonna get all schmaltzy on you here, Steve, but this is what's meant by Olympic moments, and it's certainly what these much maligned games need.

INSKEEP: Tom, do you need a moment in the kiss-and-cry area before we continue?

GOLDMAN: We can continue.

INSKEEP: OK, that's fine, that's fine. So Rochette has had a dramatic performance here, but she is in third place. What about the skaters in first and second?

GOLDMAN: Well, Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada lived up to their expectations. They went one after the next in their group. Asada, who's a gorgeous skater and a powerful jumper, went first. She was the only woman in the short program who tried to do a difficult triple axle, and she landed it cleanly and did the rest of her program really well. She got a great score, and her jaw dropped when she saw it.

But then Kim went right after her, and she didn't seem in the least bit bothered by Asada's ovation and her great score. Kim didn't do a triple axle, but she did pretty much everything else - and better than Asada. She did her routine to a James Bond medley and ended it with her shooting an imaginary pistol - kind of like gotcha, Mao. Her score set a new world record, and it looks very good for Kim going into Thursday.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Goldman.

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