Canada's Morrison wins silver in 1,000-metre long-track speed skating

Sochi, Russia — The Globe and Mail

Silver medallist Canada's Denny Morrison celebrates during the flower ceremony for the men's 1000-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)

At first Denny Morrison thought it was all a bad joke.

Sitting in the athletes village a few nights ago, he received a text on the temporary Russian cellphone Canada’s athletes have been given in Sochi.

“I didn’t really know who it was from; it just said a random Russian number, ‘Hey you ready for the 1,000? You can have my spot if you want,’” Mr. Morrison said. “And I was like, ‘Is someone pulling my leg here? Because this isn’t funny if you’re screwing with me.’”

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Trash talk is nothing new, but teasing Mr. Morrison about not being entered in the 1,000-metre race at these Olympics was unusually cruel.

The long-track speed skater from Fort St. John, B.C., has been aching for redemption in that race ever since he finished 13th at the Vancouver Olympics, a bewildering result in what’s supposed to be his best shot at a medal. Then, in the last 50 metres of his Olympic qualifying bid in December, disaster struck. Mr. Morrison caught one skate on the other and fell flat on his face, sliding headfirst across the finish line and out of a spot for Sochi. It was one of his darkest moments as an athlete.

And now this, some idiot with a cellphone was having a laugh.

He would soon realize the text was legit. On the other end of it was 23-year-old teammate Gilmore Junio, an Olympic rookie who was offering to do something remarkable: He was volunteering to let Mr. Morrison race the 1,000 in his place.

“I just said thanks so much man, I’m going to make the most of this. This is a huge opportunity. I hope to make you proud,” Mr. Morrison said.

“And he said, ‘Dude, just go kill it. I know you’re going to have a good one.’”

Mr. Morrison killed it. Not wanting to let Mr. Junio down, the 28-year-old went out and executed one of his best races ever, winning a silver medal for Canada.

It was a moment that will go down in Olympic lore, the kind of story people tell their kids about.

“Like a movie or a fairy tale,” a grinning Mr. Junio said afterward, seeming almost as happy as if he’d won the silver himself. “That’s the thing out of the Olympics – anything can happen and expect the unexpected.”

But everything about the paths that brought Mr. Junio and Mr. Morrison together is a tale of the unexpected.

Mr. Junio, whose family emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s, grew up playing hockey in Calgary. When the other kids grew bigger than his son, Mr. Junio’s dad began looking for other sports for Gilmore to play. He eventually found speed skating and in the ensuing years, Mr. Junio blossomed into a promising sprinter for the Canadian squad.

Mr. Morrison, on the other hand, has been one of Canada’s most dominating speed skaters for the past eight years. Heading into the Vancouver Olympics, he seemed destined for a medal, then shockingly, unthinkably, he sputtered on the world’s biggest stage. For someone who had dozens of medals on the World Cup circuit in the 1,000 metres, the Vancouver experience was gut-wrenching. Then, as Mr. Morrison began to think about regrouping for the Sochi Olympics, more problems: While cross-country skiing alone in the mountains in 2012, he broke his leg and had to hike out of the wilderness on his own. At that point, the Olympics seemed impossible.

By the time he returned to the ice, a youngster named Gilmore Junio was quickly making a name for himself. The two trained together and became close friends. Mr. Junio learned whatever he could from Mr. Morrison, but soon the student became the teacher. Mr. Morrison loved Mr. Junio’s technique off the start line. Having always been a skater who relied on the second lap to win the two-lap 1,000-metre race, Mr. Morrison knew that if he could learn Mr. Junio’s choppy sprint stride, he would have a new weapon on the track.

“I’ve literally been trying to just get his technique in my opener,” Mr. Morrison said. When the starting gun sounded in Sochi Wednesday, something unusual happened. Mr. Morrison had one of his fastest starts in six or seven years. He credits Mr. Junio for that. The gesture helped focus him on that crucial first lap. And by the time he hit the homestretch, it was vintage Morrison.

His time was so fast that he narrowly missed beating the Netherlands’ Stefan Groothuis for the gold. Mr. Goothuis finished a mere four-hundredths of a second ahead. “Deep down I wanted to race that race bad,” Mr. Morrison said. “It’s been a long road. I’ve wanted to have a celebration like that for eight years now.”

Mr. Junio readily admits he wasn’t a podium contender in the race, and jokes he “maybe” could have placed top-16. But he earned his spot to be there. He placed 10th in his only other event, the 500-metre on Monday. Speed Skating Canada officials, knowing what a force Mr. Morrison is in the 1,000-metre, approached Mr. Junio on Monday night and asked him whether he would consider stepping aside. There was no debate.

It was an easy decision, Mr. Junio said. “I wanted to see him skate this 1,000-metre.”

In the 1 minute and 8.43 seconds it took Mr. Morrison to win the silver, Mr. Junio has gone from being an affable athlete toiling in amateur sport to a sudden household name across Canada. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement praising both men, and a campaign, led by Mr. Morrison and other athletes, to have Mr. Junio carry the flag at the closing ceremonies, has already begun.

Asked how this new fame feels, Mr. Junio laughed uncomfortably, saying he hoped it didn’t take the spotlight off Mr. Morrison. “All the credit to Denny,” he said, adding that at most, “I hope I’m a small footnote.”

Mr. Junio’s former training partner, Kevin Jagger, said he wasn’t surprised. “That’s the way Gil is. He truly believes in doing what’s best for the team.”

“He practises what he preaches [about being a team player]. He’s pretty consistent in that,” he added.

Mr. Morrison doesn’t know how he’ll repay Mr. Junio. In truth, he knows he never can.

Mr. Morrison told Mr. Junio he would break the medal in half for him. Instead, Mr. Junio asked for visitation rights.

“I think he’ll just keep it at his place and I’ll come over every now and then and look at it, and remember this,” Mr. Junio said.

Mr. Morrison figures he’ll have to come up with something. “I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I feel like I should definitely buy him a beer at least,” he added, putting emphasis on the words “at least.” As for the famous cellphone that sent that text to Mr. Morrison? The messages are all incoming now. “It’s been vibrating in my pocket constantly,” Mr. Junio said.

With a report from Allan Maki

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki