The angelic lightness of Yu-Na, the profound sorrow of Joannie.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 26 2010 11:37 AM

Ladies' Free Skating

The angelic lightness of Yu-Na, the profound sorrow of Joannie.

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On any other occasion, I might comment on the strange popularity of the flesh-toned fabric-covered skates (which make the women's legs look hooved) or argue that far too much nude pantyhoselike material was involved in the women's outfits. I would say that I'd wished the young American skater Mirai Nagasu had medaled. But none of that mattered because I was too busy rooting for Joannie Rochette to make it to the podium.

The Olympics are full of manufactured feeling, but this was a dose of the real thing. Rochette's performance was moving, nuanced, and intimate. You could feel Rochette's desire to be there, with the crowd, even in the midst of her loss (the evidence of which was written all over her face every now and then). Having lost my own mother a year ago, I could imagine some of what she was experiencing, and, like everyone else watching, was struck by her grace and composure and clarity. TV commentators often go for cheap sentiment, but in this case, the words courageous and inspiring really did apply. (Too bad many of us can no longer hear them without a dollop of cynicism attached.)

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Rochette's performance had a timeless patience to it and was suffused with a sense of longing. She has said her mother was very important to her skating; she even told reporters that she'd had to ask her mother to come watch her practice once a week, as a way of motivating herself. (Rochette noted, too, that it can be embarrassing for a young adult to say she needs her mom—her frankness won me over utterly.) If some of her footwork seemed less artful than Yu-Na's, the height of her jumps less stunning, so be it. She had our attention, and not merely because her mother died, but because her mother died and yet she went on to skate with a real quality of being present. You could see what this meant to her, and in that sense her mother lingered over the performance like the track of the skate on the ice. The performance was an act of ritual attentiveness, and we were lucky to witness it. At the end of her lovely, focused program—in which she offered up a number of solid jumps—she craned her neck upward and blew a kiss—to her father and, perhaps, also to her mother. Her eyes moved around the stadium almost as if she were looking for her. I couldn't help feeling that I wanted to say, as one motherless daughter to another, what millions surely thought: Surely her mother would have been proud. It's not sappy to say so.

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Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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