Even now, his friends will grin and say, “Honestly, Denny, you can tell me. How did you really break your leg? Base jumping? Snowmobile racing?”
And Denny Morrison, self-hailed “bicycle-commuting, fast-car driving, motorcycle-riding, speed-skating speed demon,” will have to admit he snapped his left fibula and strained multiple ligaments in his left ankle during a leisurely December day of cross-country skiing. Not alpine skiing, not snowboarding, not racing all bent and hell-bent on an icy oval. Cross. Country. Skiing.
It just doesn’t fit with Morrison’s madcap nature, but it has proved to be a powerful learning exercise. As he rehabilitates outside the World Cup tour, the two-time world champion and 2010 Olympic team-relay gold medalist is discovering the Zen of patience. He has already determined that missing next month’s 2013 world single-distance long-track championships is a far better thing to do if it means enhancing his chances at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
So in that vein, the speed-skating speed demon has given way to a more sensible Morrison, a man of appreciation who is following his Integrated Service Team’s instructions right down to running up a set of stairs one step at time, not two. It’s the end result that justifies Morrison’s new-found state of being.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m good to go to the next [phase], but you can’t rush those things,” he said. “I don’t want to go on ice, go into the corner, ‘Oh, it hurts,’ fall down and a year from now be hesitant going into the turn. You can’t have that and be fast.”
Charging off without a worry is what Morrison has done his entire athletic career. It’s why he’s been so dominant over 1,500 metres and, until his cross-country misadventure, had been leading the World Cup standings in the 1,000 metres. Powerful, precise, a veteran of 10 years on the international scene, Morrison has developed into a workhorse of a thoroughbred. He puts in the time; he usually gets the results.
Even his cross-country accident was born of a training episode. Told by Speed Skating Canada he couldn’t alpine ski or snowboard, two of his favourite (and riskier) pastimes, Morrison was given clearance to cross-country ski because what could possibly go wrong with that?
Here’s what: Morrison was negotiating a slight downhill on a trail in Fernie, B.C., when he caught an edge on his outer ski, veered off the trail into the woods and into a fallen log buried under the snow. His skis went under the log; he went over it, snapping his left fibula above the boot he was wearing. To get back to where his family and friends were staying in Fernie, Morrison “MacGyvered” his skis into a toboggan and poled his way through the snow. Before he set off, he text-messaged his coach and family: “I have some bad news for you.”
Considering his sport, it was indeed bad. Speed skaters race their laps making nothing but left turns. As they skate through the turn, they’re at a hard angle with their left leg and ankle as contact points in a delicate balance.
Paul Hunter, a Speed Skating Canada physiotherapist, understands what’s at stake and how best to deal with Morrison.
“There’s so much pressure going through that [left] leg,” Hunter explained. “As a medical team, we have to be reining Denny in, to make sure he’s physically ready, because there’s so much lean going into that side, to get that blade into the ice just perfect. It has to be right. … Our goal is not this season but to have a healthy, happy champion for next year. We know how valuable he is to the team. He’s a champion, a competitor.”
Morrison never underwent surgery, and was in a walking cast and on crutches for weeks. These days, he walks about Calgary’s Olympic Oval but refuses to try public skating. Instead, he does physio two times a day, five times a week. He hits the weight room, rides a stationary bike and walks up and downs stairs, one step at a time. Everything he does is monitored by a team that includes his orthopedic surgeon, a chiropractor, an osteopath, a massage therapist, even the skate technician in case Morrison’s skate boot needs modifying.
All of this has helped Morrison realize how calculating and careful he has to be, until he gets the green light. Then look out. The man has some lost time to make up for.
“I’ve looked at how Sidney Crosby handled things,” Morrison said of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ captain. “He was concussed and came back a few times, then he took his time and did a summer of training and now he’s gotten stronger than ever. That’s the route I want to take. I want to come back and be back.”
Just no more cross-country skiing. Honestly, that’s how he broke his leg.