Canadian skater Joannie Rochette does her mother proud

“I always encouraged her to have confidence in herself, to believe in her dreams.”

The memory of the mother’s words gave powerful warmth through the chill of the Pacific Coliseum on Tuesday night, connecting hands, filling eyes, lifting her child.

“The hurdles she faces motivate her to rise above them, Joannie has always been naturally determined and persevering.”

On Sunday morning here, Therese Rochette, who spoke those words, died suddenly of a heart attack.

On Tuesday night, with impossible strength followed by uncontrollable tears, daughter Joannie Rochette skated to their soundtrack.

In an Olympic short program that few imagined possible, bearing a burden that few can understand, Canadian star Rochette honored her late mother less than 72 hours after her death with the performance of a lifetime.

Confidence . . . dreams . . . determined . . . persevering . . . a mother’s public thoughts carried her for more than two minutes in a tango of toughness.

Dressed in black, biting her lip, she soared, she skipped, she danced, she scored. In the end, after holding her closing pose for several long seconds, she finally broke.

As the crowd roared, Rochette’s body went limp, she dropped her head, she put her fist over her mouth, and she began softly crying. Skating around the rink in appreciation for that applause, she put her right hand over her heart and continued crying.

When she stepped off the ice, she collapsed in tears into the arms of her coach Manon Perron. When she reached the kiss-and-cry area, a tearful Joannie Rochette looked into the television cameras with words of her own.

“Maman,” she said in her native French, over and over. “Maman, maman.”

“In our eyes . . . she long ago proved what she had to prove. . . . An Olympic medal would be a bonus. . . . We couldn’t be more proud than we already are.”

How could she do it? Why did she do it?

The words of her mother in a January interview with the Christian Science Monitor offered a clue. But as Rochette, 24, took the ice at the beginning of the final group Tuesday, the questions persisted.

“We talk about roadblocks, but this is something that’s never in your mind,” said Michael Slipchuk, Canada’s skating team leader. “How do you prepare for this?”

Her mother and father, Normand, had arrived here Saturday night from Montreal. Shortly thereafter, her mother suddenly died. Joannie was awakened at 6 a.m. with the news.

Almost immediately, the announcement was made that while she would not publicly speak, she would publicly attempt to skate.

“If it doesn’t happen to you, you can’t imagine how hard it is,” said Canadian skater Cynthia Phaneuf.

One can truly not imagine. To bare your soul on a sheet of ice in front of millions of witnesses just days after that soul had been ripped apart?

Joannie, who left home at 13 to live at a sports school, was so close to her mother that she insisted she visit her training sessions once a week. And this was as recently as two years ago.

“Even if it requires quite a big deal of humility at 22 to admit you need your mother, I expressed it,” she said at the time.

Rochette had blossomed, finishing fifth in the 2006 Winter Olympics and second in last year’s world championships while being currently ranked third in the world.

But her mother always reminded her of a different, more important purpose.

“In periods of great stress, I also have the necessary distance to remind her of a rule she knows well above all -- skate for herself.”

On Tuesday, with many folks wondering why she didn’t just drop out, she indeed skated for herself.

It first appeared as if she wouldn’t make it to the ice; she was breathing heavily in warm-ups and wincing as if on the verge of a breakdown.

“I watched her before she skated, it looked like she was struggling emotionally,” said William Thompson, chief executive of Skate Canada . “Then she pulled herself together.”

It happened when she stood firm on the ice, waiting for the music, surrounded by thunderous applause and cries of, “We love you Joannie!”

La Cumparsita began and the toughest woman in the room took over, nailing a triple lutz-double toe loop combination, then a triple flip, then, well, the rest of the program was difficult to watch through watery eyes.

“Her performance was magical,” said Thompson. “I think her mother is up there jumping up and down.”

It was worth a personal best 71.36, good enough for third place, as if anybody really cared.

“It’s hard to handle. . . . I’ll remember this forever,” said Rochette through a team official.

“It’s because we love her that we agreed to live through all the stress from the stop of the stands.”

On Tuesday, a mother’s seat was empty. Or was it?

“Words can’t describe it,” said Rochette.

They already had.