VANCOUVER - As Joannie Rochette finally left the ice after the most difficult skate of her life, two men hoisted a hand-painted banner that summed up the feeling of all watching: "GO, GO JOANNIE: ON T'AIME" — we love you.

From friends, fellow athletes and spectators there were congratulations, and also an expression of awe that the Canadian figure skater was able to win an Olympic bronze medal after losing her mother less than a week earlier.

"To carry the pressure, fight that hard and be that good — that is a metaphor for the whole country about possibility," said Vancouver 2010 CEO John Furlong, who had watched Thursday's women's figure-skating final from the stands.

"This will become something that is part of her life story as long as she lives. She will take it with her in everywhere."

The Canadian Olympic team's chef de mission, Nathalie Lambert, said the long program would have been gruelling for a physically drained Rochette, and that made the bronze-medal performance even more amazing.

"I think she did something really extraordinary, because with a moment like this, it really cuts you off at the knees," she said.

"It's the kind of week where you eat very little, you sleep very little, you go through the motions and physically that is not easy...She did one of the beautiful performances of her life, in one of the most difficult moments of her life."

Former German figure skater Katarina Witt was also in the crowd, and was moved by what she saw.

"Actually I am speechless because I thought they all skated incredibly and memorably," said Witt, a two-time gold medallist. "And to see how strong Joannie came out, you know it's just — my heart just went to her."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper lauded Rochette in a press release immediately following the medal ceremony.

"I offer my sincere congratulations to Joannie for her moving and inspirational medal-winning performance," Harper said in the statement. "Her commitment and dedication to her sport under these exceptionally difficult circumstances has touched the hearts of all Canadians."

At the Pacific Coliseum, the crowd cheered for Rochette every step of the way, but kept their enthusiasm to a respectful level. Supportive signs and flags were sprinkled liberally throughout the arena.

Chris Rudge, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said Rochette owned everyone's hearts.

"I think that we all lived and died with every jump and every move and every breathe she took," said Rudge. "And she delivered in a way that I don't think many humans could under the circumstances.''

On Twitter, some Canadians watching the performance began to lobby for Rochette as Canada's final flag bearer.

"I know who I want to see carrying the flag at the closing ceremony...," tweeted Holly Lake, of Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Felicitations @joannierochette, Canada loves you!" wrote Hilary Walker.