Best-kept secret in sport
ROY MASTERS, Sydney Morning Herald
16 March, 2005

Joanne Carter has endured more than her fair share of setbacks but keeps bouncing back.

Her former Olympic coach describes her as "the Lleyton Hewitt of her sport", and while she's never been No.1 in the world, she has endured enough heartbreak to test the most legendary grit.

She may also be the best-kept secret in Australian sport, having set a world mark never previously reached by any athlete in her discipline.

Sydney's Joanne Carter, 24, flew to Moscow last week to compete in the world figure skating championships, having earned her entry via a fourth place at the Four Continents tournament in South Korea last month.

Her result is the best - male or female, dance or figure, individual or pair - by an Australian at what is effectively the tournament for the other half of the figure skating world that doesn't attend the European championships.

Alan Carter, Joanne's father, received a heart transplant in 1994 and was told to expect 10 years. It was ticking down in July 2003 when Joanne received bad news via telephone from her mother, Carol, while training in Canada.

"I told mum, 'I'm booking a flight home tomorrow'," she recalls. Three weeks later, he "passed", as she says.

He was my hero in every aspect of my life. I knew dad would want me to finish my dream of a second Olympics. My 'L-plate' Olympics were expected to be Nagano when I was 17, coming out of my Higher School Certificate year, and my 'P-plate' Olympics were to be Salt Lake City four years later in 2002."

Two things happened. Nagano turned out better - her 12th place was the best Olympic result by an Australian figure skater. And Salt Lake City didn't happen.

"It started after Nagano," she says of the tendonitis in her right patella, a condition called "jumper's knee", which afflicts basketballers but rarely figure skaters. Former Swans star Paul Kelly is one of the few athletes to have returned successfully from an operation for it.

"The physio told me to rest but I thought I was a quick healer and tried to skate through it," she says. "The physio warned it wasn't an injury to play with. I should have got it fixed. In hindsight, I should have listened.

"I finally had an operation in April '99 and was very optimistic I'd be back in 12 months but in actual fact it took five years."

She also split with her long-term coach, a Russian named Andrei Pachin.

"I wasn't back in training until 2001 and it was still very sore. The operation didn't fix the problem. Emotionally, as well as physically, I wasn't in good shape.

"Andrie and I are the same personality. I'm one to keep training while still standing and he's of the same bent. He was as driven and motivated and ambitious as me.

"That's all OK if things are going well but when there's a spoke in the wheel, it's not. We were clashing too much and bad for each other. It was going nowhere. He moved to New York to teach."

A year later her father died, and as she says: "I'd finished my degree and thought I'd get a job and call it quits.

"The sport had cost so much that my parents often said they were lucky they only had one child. But I knew dad would agree I had unfinished business."

Living in the same Castle Hill suburb was Pachin's wife, Galin, who had remained in Sydney. "She had known me so long," Carter says, explaining why she approached the 40-year-old coach. "She knew how to motivate, push me. We clicked."

Carter's spiral sequence in Korea was only the third time it has been performed this year, with 2002 Olympic silver medallist, Russia's Irina Slutskaya, and fourth-placed Sacha Cohen of the US also executing it.

Carter's qualifying round in Moscow begins today and, should she finish in the first 24, she is guaranteed a place at next year's Turin Winter Olympics.

Throughout her career the cupid-faced Carter has consciously rejected what she calls the "airy-fairy" side of her sport, preferring to score points by power and speed. But recently she has been hearing the music within.

"Since dad's passed, he's been with me," she says. "I feel calmer, in control. I feel he's definitely watching me. I say, 'Come on dad, fly with me'."