From the Canadian Press...
OTTAWA — Joannie Rochette has skated in jam-packed arenas around the world over the course of her career. But when it came to performing for an audience of one - famed Canadian choreographer Lori Nichol - she admits she was a bundle of nerves.
"I was a bit shy and she put music on, and said, 'OK, stand in that circle and move,"' Rochette said, laughing.
The four-time Canadian women's figure skating champion from Ile-Dupas, Que., teamed up with Nichol, one of the skating world's most sought after choreographers, this season in a move she hopes will propel her to the podium at the 2009 world championships and 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
"She really analyzed my skating, she watched my old programs, she just really tried to point out little things I was missing in my skating," Rochette said Thursday, on the eve of Skate Canada International.
The 22-year-old will skate as part of a young Canadian team that's coming off a surprising performance at last spring's world championships in Sweden, and is keen to set the stage for another strong showing at the Vancouver Olympics.
Canada captured medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships, catapulting the team into a virtual powerhouse in the sport. Jeffrey Buttle won the men's singles title, Tesse Virtue and Scott Moir earned silver in ice dancing, and Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison captured bronze in the pairs.
Buttle announced his retirement in September, turning the skating spotlight onto Rochette, the dance and pairs teams, and men's singles skater Patrick Chan. But the skaters insist they're not feeling the heat.
"I don't feel pressure, last year it was kind of a surprise everyone stepping on the podium, it was great and we just want to build on that," Rochette said. "With Jeff retiring, of course it's a big loss for the team. ... But it was such an inspiration to have seen (Buttle) go from not making the world team one year to being on top of the podium at worlds, so I'm glad I was a part of it."
Rochette hopes the two new routines she'll unveil this weekend, along with a new big-picture approach she's taking to this season, will help her climb the podium after several years of knocking on the door. She finished fifth at the 2006 Turin Olympics and fifth at last year's world championships.
She'll skate her long program to "Concierto de Aranjuez," a classical guitar composition written by Joaquin Rodrigo that Rochette refers to as one of "figure skating's greatest hits" - it was American Michelle Kwan's music for one of the five world championships she won.
She teamed up with Shae-Lynn Bourne, who choreographed a previous show routine for Rochette, for her short program to George Gershwin's "Summertime."
"Everyone was telling me, you look so relaxed, so smooth in the show, but when you get to the competition, you look so tense and stiff in your upper body," Rochette said. "So we thought we should do something that reminds me of a show program, I can be more loose and move more freely."
The five-foot-two skater has altered her approach, focusing on improving her "program components score" which encompasses the more artistic side of skating such as transition, interpretation and choreography, rather than the execution of specific jumps and spins.
"I want to show that we do more difficult things, difficult entry before my jump, difficult exit on one foot, things that I didn't do before, and to use my upper body more, to be less stiff and more floaty," Rochette said. "It's the first year I don't go in thinking about one element in particular, I'm just thinking of the whole package."
Another change for Rochette this season is her living arrangements. She moved into a Montreal apartment in July with boyfriend Francois-Louis Tremblay, a three-time world champion in short-track speedskating that she met at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
"It's helpful, especially that we live together," Rochette said. "Sometimes he goes to sharpen his skates and he brings mine too. Plus he understands. He came home from his World Cup a few days ago and I was a bit more nervous than usual . . . we can talk about it, but I don't even have to tell him, he knows. He knows I'm just nervous and it will be OK."
Rochette and her teammates know pressure will be at an all-time high in Vancouver, where the Canadian Olympic Committee has set a target of finishing atop the overall medal podium.
Skating in front of the hometown crowd at this weekend's event at Scotiabank Place makes it one of several important Olympic tuneup events.
"Every time you have the opportunity to compete at home in front of a home crowd, it's a practice for 2010," Rochette said. "It can go both ways. You get more pressure from the crowd, because you're there, you want to perform for them, your fans, your family are here. But also, you have twice as much cheering because they want you to do so well.
"I think when you're not used to it, it can be like pressure pressing down on you, but now I feel I can use it for myself, use the energy of the crowd."
Chan, the 17-year-old that knocked Buttle off the top of the podium at last season's Canadian championships, admits Buttle's retirement just 17 months before the Olympics, thrust him head-long into the spotlight.
"I'll feel some pressure, but not outstandingingly I think, knock on wood, we'll see," Chan said. "I think as long as I keep focused on training, and keep practising for the Olympics and having the Olympics in mind, I'll be OK."
The personable Chan says he'll miss Buttle's companionship on the road, but is ready to step up and fill the void.
"Really my plan hasn't changed since he retired, it was more of an: oh my gosh, I've lost a friend kind to have around at competitions," Chan said. "Unfortunately he was my mentor when I was on the road, he was always around to help me out.
"It's sad that he's not around, but I think it's time for me to step up and really show that I can take his place and show what I've got."
Chan, along with Rochette and dance duo Dube and Davison, carry Canada's hopes for a medal into this weekend's event, the lone Canadian stop on the Grand Prix tour, more so with the absence of Virtue and Moir, who pulled out due to injury.