By now you know the tragic tale of Joannie Rochette, the 24-year-old Canadian figure skater who lost her mother to a heart attack Sunday in Vancouver. Rochette competed Tuesday night in Vancouver, skating the women's short program. In the wrong hands, this emotional evening – a skater competing in the Olympics while her mother's funeral has yet to take place – could have been broadcast as exploitative schmaltz. NBC, however, didn't go that route and distinguished itself with restrained but touching coverage of Rochette's skate.
Before Rochette took the ice, Bob Costas sat down with former speedskater Dan Jansen, who himself has some practice in performing on the world's biggest stage after the loss of a loved one. (Jansen's sister Jane died on the day of his 500m race in the Calgary Games.) Jansen said he sent Rochette an email in which he wrote the following:
I don't know if you can prepare for the emotions you're going to feel out there, but if you can get through it there are millions of people supporting you. And most of all, skate with your mother in your heart.
Tom Hammond was understated in his commentary, as usual. The visuals were nearly perfect: tight shots of Rochette warming up and the occasional cut to what NBC thought was her grieving father, but was actually another teary-eyed man (misidentified by the Canadian team, so don't blame NBC for that one).
When Rochette was introduced to a raucous ovation, NBC used a wide shot to show the cheering Canadian crowd and focused in tight as Rochette slapped five with her coach, fighting back tears. All during this, the announcing booth stayed silent, letting the visuals tell the story, a professional move if there ever was one.
The routine was good enough to place Rochette in third place. Given the circumstances, it can only be classified as a great performance.
Immediately after finishing the routine, Rochette broke into tears on the middle of the ice, bending to rest her hands on her knees and skating to a standing ovation at Pacific Coliseum. She savored the cheers.
When Scott Hamilton finally broke NBC's silence, he spoke through tears. There was little talk about the routine itself. That was secondary. Rochette's strength in performing was the story. That she earned a personal best and is currently in third place was only icing on the cake.
It would have been easy for NBC to go with the cheesily narrated, soft-lit puff piece about the relationship between Rochette and her mother. But producers smartly realized that there was no need to manufacture drama in this tale. It had it all. The producers let the story tell itself, and it succeeded. The tragedy is still there – it will always be there – but at least, on the third night after her mother's death, Joannie Rochette was able to bring a brief moment of triumph. And we, as American viewers, shared in the moment thanks to some solid work by the National Broadcasting Company.