Olympian and Scholar

Joannie Rochette celebrates her bronze medal win at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. - Photo credit: Skate Canada/ Gérard Châtaigneau.

Joannie Rochette – Her Path to Success: The Athletic and Academic Journey

School. Study. Sleep. Repeat.

That basically sums up figure skater Joannie Rochette’s routine since she traded her jetsetter lifestyle and the ice show spotlight for a decidedly less glamorous, but no less desirable pursuit.

Many Canadians will remember Rochette as the young woman who stoically took the ice at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver and won the bronze medal for Canada, just days after her mom Thérѐse died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

A decade on from that bittersweet culmination to her competitive career, Rochette expects to become Dr. Joannie Rochette, MD, when she graduates in 2020 from McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.

While Rochette’s lofty academic goal will come as a surprise to many, those closest to her know she was always a top-flight student who put as much emphasis on succeeding academically as she did on excelling on the ice, even in high school. “School was very important to me. Back then, skating was important but I didn’t think I’d make a living out of it. It was just a hobby and I always knew I needed a real job after skating. “You never know how things will work out in sport. Only a few figure skaters can make a living from the sport, so it’s important to have a plan B,” Rochette advised.

As it turned out, the the six-time Canadian champion and 2009 world silver medalist did land among the elite group of figure skaters able to earn a good living from their sport, performing in ice shows and competing in invitational events. “Without really realizing it, that had become my job and, at one point, I said ‘You know, I want something else out of life. When I’m 50, I don’t see myself doing that anymore,’” said Rochette, who applied in 2015 to do the one year of medical preparation studies required to qualify for medical school in Quebec.

As an athlete, Rochette developed a keen interest in anything related to anatomy. “Because we worked with our bodies so much, I was fascinated by the human body. I always wanted to (go to medical school) even before my mom passed away. “Of course, I have a bit more interest in cardiology now. I wanted to understand what happened to my mom but, at the same time, I don’t think I’ll end up doing cardiology. We’ll see,” said Rochette, now 31 and in her second year of the medical program at McGill.

Juggling priorities

An international competitor since her early teens, Rochette learned early on how to balance skating and school, although she admits it was stressful juggling the demands of both.

Necessitated by her talent and training needs, Rochette moved twice during her high school years. She relocated from her hometown of Berthierville, Que., to attend sport-academic programs, first at a high school near Trois-Rivières and then another in Montreal.

During that time, Rochette won the Canadian titles at both the novice and junior levels and competed at the junior and senior world championships. She figures it would have been easier to do her studies at home through correspondence, but she didn’t want to miss the high school experience. “I really cherish my high school years and going to a regular school, even though it was a sports school. That social interaction with other kids every morning was important for me.”

Rochette’s alma mater in Cap-de-la-Madeleine caters to students who have a burgeoning talent and want to devote more time to it — whether in music, sports or languages.  She points out that a multiple-specialty school is more viable for a smaller community than a sports-only program would be.

Attending classes in the morning, Rochette then was bussed to her figure skating training facility. She followed a condensed timetable — five math classes each week instead of six — and was exempt from phys ed, given she trained on and off the ice several hours each day. “We didn’t go to school in the afternoon, but there were teachers available so if you missed a week for competition, you could stay at school and catch up the week that you were back. “You would also get work in advance of when you were leaving to help you prepare for an important exam,” she recalled.

With her subsequent move to École secondaire Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry in Montreal, even more resources were available, including the best off-ice trainers and physiotherapists.

And better yet, the rink was next door. During breaks from training, Rochette could walk back to school to meet with teachers when she had questions about an assignment. “It was quite motivating to walk into the school to see the pictures of all your idols, Olympic medallists on the wall,” said Rochette who, by that time, was competing often at events around the world. “The teachers knew we were missing school — not because we weren’t motivated, but because we had competition. They were really keen on helping us when we were there.”

Resisting Temptation

If problems arose, Rochette and her fellow student-athletes counted on Ralph Bitton, then director of the sport-études (sport-academic) program, to offer help. “He was very good at managing our schedule and if we had any trouble with a teacher, he would come and explain the situation. If we had a plane to take at the end of the day, we could leave our suitcase in his office. Little things like that. “For students who had difficulty, he would meet with them one-on-one. It’s hard to connect with high school kids sometimes, but he was really good at connecting with us and understanding our reality. That was very comforting.”

An athlete’s exam could be rescheduled if travel schedules interfered, but Rochette said it was challenging to keep up with her studies nonetheless.  Students were required to maintain a 75 per cent average to remain in the program.

Away at competitions, Rochette had to dig deep to find the motivation to go back to her hotel room and study while older skaters who had finished high school headed out for dinner, to sightsee or party. She remembers doing her best studying on the airplane en route to and from competitions when she could focus free from distraction. “Sometimes I would do eight hours straight of homework. When you’re in high school that goes a long way to getting caught up. Still, that was added pressure. School, to me, was always a bit stressful because of the grades. “To make it to med school, I had to do really well, so I did my CEGEP (Quebec’s pre-university college program) part-time.  In Olympic seasons (2009-10 and 2005-06, when she ranked 5th), I didn’t go to school at all so I could focus on skating.“When I did do both, I was so tired at the end of the day and stressed out. But, at the same time, I don’t regret it. It felt like I had a balance in life. I had interest in something other than skating,” added Rochette, who was recently named to Skate Canada’s Hall of Fame.

For the first time since she was a little girl, this year Rochette relegated figure skating to the back burner. Not even the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will keep the veteran of three Olympic Games — she worked as a broadcaster in 2014 in Sochi — from her medical mission.

Rochette, the scholar, is chasing a different dream now.   

By Laurie Nealin