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Denny Morrison almost missed qualifying for the Olympics. Now he’s owning them.
After coming within a single race of not making the cut for Sochi in December, the Canadian speed skater continued his impressive run on the long-track Saturday with a bronze medal win in the 1,500-metres.
The surprise medal came three days after his stunning silver in the 1,000-metres, a race packed with drama after Canadian Olympic rookie Gilmore Junio selflessly stepped aside to let the veteran Morrison race in his place.
Morrison failed to qualify for Sochi in the 1,000-meters after falling during Olympic trials in Calgary and sliding across the finish line on his stomach. He then needed a flawless race in the 1,500 just to make it onto the Canadian team.
But it was that qualifying race in Calgary, under some of the biggest pressure than Morrison has faced in his career, that his coach Bart Schouten believes prepared him for his dual upset performances this week in Russia.
“When he had that great race under super stress in the 1,500 metres to qualify for the Olympics, we talked about that,” Schouten said. “I got right in his face, and said, ’This is awesome. This is how you deal with the pressure, this is so big for the Olympics, this is what you can do at the Olympics now.’”
Still riding a high from that silver medal on Wednesday, Morrison stepped to the start line Saturday hoping to stamp out the last bad memory he holds from the Vancouver Olympics where he finished out of medal contention in both the 1,000 and the 1,500, despite being a podium contender.
Morrison recalled he ran out of gas on the last lap during the 1,500 in Vancouver. This time he was determined not to let that happen – which is no easy task in a gruelling race that is both a sprint and and endurance event combined. The 1,500 favours no particular kind of skater.
“That’s one of the things about the 1,500, it’s a scary race. You go to the start line and you’re like, this is going to hurt,” Morrison said afterward. “For me especially, I go out hard and I try to hang on.”
Morrison delivered on that strategy, having a strong first half of the race that put him ahead of the field. The question then became, could he hold on to the lead. With 10 of the world’s best speed skaters still to race after him, his last lap would mean everything. Located at one of the final corners before the finish line were 13 Morrison backers – family and friends, including his parents, brother and girlfriend – and the skater from Fort St. John said he didn’t want to let them down.
“When I crossed the line I wasn’t sure how much I dropped off,” Morrison said. “Memories of Vancouver floated in my head.”
Morrison was in first place with top talent such Dutch powerhouse Koen Verweij and Poland’s Zbigniew Brodka still to come.
He then had to wait, enduring the pain in his legs and lungs after the race, and the suspense of whether his time would hold.
He sat on the padded boards that line the track and rocked back and forth, fighting back nausea, he said, that comes in waves after the 1,500 metres.
“My legs hurt so much,” Morrison said. “The first wave hits and then that passes ... and then the second wave comes in exponentially harder and basically cripples me and I have to either sit down or stand up. I basically just want to vomit.”
Several skaters tried to beat his mark and failed. Among them, his old friend and training partner, Shani Davis of the United States, who won silver in the 1,500 in Vancouver. Davis, who has struggled in Sochi, was nearly three-quarters of a second behind Morrison.
As the skaters came and went, only Poland’s Brodka, skating the race of his life, and Verweij of The Netherlands, were able to beat Morrison.
Brodka won gold with a time of 1:45.006 seconds, followed by Verweij for silver (1:45.009), while Morrison took bronze (1:45.22).
It has been a long road to redemption for Morrison. After the disappointment of Vancouver, he broke his leg in 2012 while cross country skiing in the mountains. Morrison hit a fallen tree lying across the track. His ski went under the trunk and he went over it. Something had to give, and this case it was Morrison’s leg.
Schouten remembers getting the call from Morrison at the hospital.
“He said, ’Bart I think I have bad news. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I broke my leg.’” Schouten said. The coach wasn’t upset. After all he had encouraged his skater to cross-country ski for endurance.
“It’s part of life,” Schouten said. “I like it when he does cross country skiing, because it’s really good for aerobic conditioning. So I tell him to do that. I said what do you do, it’s just a little accident. So we had to deal with that.”
The broken leg provided Morrison with some unexpected inspiration – a new challenge to come back and make the Olympics again.
“I was laying there with my broken leg in the snow and thinking, all right, this will heal in six weeks and I’ll be back on the ice…. But it ended up being a lot more difficult than that,” Morrison said.
What he wasn’t prepared for was the raft of injuries that would follow. A speed skater’s body never works in seclusion, relying on the precision and synchronicity of multiple muscles and bones to create the perfect stride. As he rehabilitated the broken leg, Morrison said other body parts were affected, and it led to more injuries.
“A broken leg turned into a sprained ankle... turned into fascia problems, turned into back problems, and turned into hip problems, and on and on,” Morrison said, heaping credit on his numerous doctors, therapists and trainers who put him back together for Sochi. “I really have my support team to thank.”
What it meant though, is that Morrison was approaching the Olympics as a bit of an underdog, rather than the dominant skater he was before Vancouver.
But Schouten, a Dutch coach who has trained American skaters and has worked the Morrison for the past few years, said Morrison has matured greatly. The biggest difference between him now, and the skater Morrison was in Vancouver, is his mental fortitude.
“Denny just became way more mature. He grew up,” Schouten said. “I’m not sure if he’s a better skater than in 2006 or 2010. What he did better was keep it together. He was mentally tough and strong.”
Morrison won silver in the Team Pursuit in Turin in 2006, and gold in that event in Vancouver. This week’s wins are his first individual Olympic medals.
“I think he’s got another Olympics in him, if he wants to,” Schouten said.
Morrison, who is also a competitive bike racer, has mused about seeing how far he could go in that sport. His coach said that wouldn’t be a problem, since training for a Summer Olympics in two years would be good preparation for another Winter Games in four years.
For now though, Morrison isn’t done with Sochi. He still has to skate in the Team Pursuit in a week.
When Morrison realized he had secured the bronze medal on Saturday, Schouten hurried over to congratulate him.
“Hey, that’s two medals man, that’s awesome,” Morrison said his coach told him. “I said, ’Let’s make it three.’”
A medal in the Team Pursuit would only cap off what’s already been a remarkable Olympics for Morrison.
“It’s the best week of my life, man,” he said with a smile.