Denny Morrison on Cheating Death Twice to Make It Back to the Olympics
Team Canada speed skater Denny Morrison writes about overcoming a horrific motorcycle accident and stroke to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games.
Photo courtesy the Canadian Olympic Committee
It's human nature to encounter adversity and, when you do, there's a choice you have to make: Are you going to fight? Are you going to overcome and work toward your goals? Or are you going to give up and fail?
For me, there's no option but to fight. Adversity hit me hard over the last three years as a result of a devastating motorcycle accident, and then later a stroke. But it's not in me to accept defeat—I was determined to battle everything thrown my way, and I'll be bringing that same mentality with me to my fourth Olympic Games in PyeongChang.
As we head into these Games, our Canadian team developed a slogan that wondered, what does it mean to "Be Olympic"? To me, it's about grit and everything I personify. When things stand in the way between you and what you want to achieve, it's that grit factor that gets you where you want to go. Goals don't come easy for anyone, no matter the line of work. But I think if you make a gritty attempt and push forward, you'll surprise yourself and everyone else with how far you can go.
Even though I've already competed at three Olympics, I think the average Canadian can relate a lot more to my story this time around. That's what I feel like, an average Canadian, who's working hard and going through the ups and downs life throws your way as I head into PyeongChang. My story is about grittiness. It's about striving to overcome all the adversity I've encountered and taking the necessary steps along the way to see how far I can go.
This is my Olympics to make an attempt at writing one of the greatest comeback stories in Canadian sport history.
When I came to in a hospital bed in Calgary on May 8, 2015, the day after the motorcycle crash, I had no idea where I was. I thought it was the last week of April and that I was still on holidays in New Zealand. My mind had somehow erased 10 days of my life.
It was the weirdest conversation to have with the doctors. It's the kind of thing you see in movies—like something out of the Terminator. The most frightening part of the whole thing for me was waking up to have doctors ask all these questions I couldn't answer.
They didn't have good news. A broken femur, torn ACL, punctured lung, concussion, internal damage to my kidneys and liver, broken elbow, broken spine. They're telling me they've surgically implanted a titanium rod into my leg.
Although I don't remember much of anything in the two-week window before or after the collision, my massage therapist has since told me that I was talking to him shortly beforehand and I said, "I don't know why I'd ever retire from speed skating. I'll just keep speed skating. I have it figured out now. I'm having great results. I love what I do. I'm passionate about it. I travel the world," and so on.
And then, boom, motorcycle collision.
But that feeling of success was still pretty fresh in my mind after the crash.
When I regained consciousness, my mom, sister, and teammate (eventually girlfriend, now wife), Josie, were all there in the hospital. They told me that one of the first things I said to them was, "Well, this is a new set of challenges, but I still want to skate in Korea."
Not long afterwards, I made a list of attainable goals. I'd cross them off the list when I achieved them. It wasn't easy.
My first goal in the hospital was to stand on my right leg. I lasted maybe five seconds before the pain became too great. I was so exhausted afterwards that I slept for three hours.
Another goal involved my brother, Jay, who was getting married in British Columbia a week after the collision. My doctor scoffed when I said I wanted to be at the wedding, but I passed all the tests and made it.
I'm not going to lie, it was hard. I'd lost 12 kilograms in a few weeks and I couldn't even stand in the shower.
But I also knew I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to have the team that I had to help me make the recovery. I was lucky to have my friends, and my family, and the support I had in the hospital. There were still tons of things to feel lucky about. Sometimes you just have to allow yourself to feel lucky about them and not feel like you're a victim. That's empowering. And then you have to reach inside and channel that internal grittiness, so you can keep working toward the next goal.
For me, there were many more milestones to come. I ditched the crutches two weeks after the collision. I rode a stationary bike. I was able to skate. I was wearing baggy sweatpants and a helmet and I was slow—it took me over a minute to complete a 400-metre lap around the rink, when normally it would take fewer than 30 seconds—but it was another step along the way.
I lost a season of racing, but I knew there was no point in rushing back. I knew that what would really make it a cool story was qualifying for the PyeongChang Olympics and having a really good race there.
I just didn't know at that point there would be more challenges ahead.
In April 2016, Josie and I decided to bike the Arizona Trail, an almost 1,300-kilometre journey from the Mexican border to Utah.
Finishing the three-week trek was a big deal, especially since it had been less than a year since the motorcycle crash. It was an incredible experience: We climbed more than 1,100 kilometres, camped in the mountains, biked through snow and outraced storms.
Two days after we finished, I had my stroke.
Josie and I and our friend, Elaine Hartrick, were driving back to Calgary through Utah and had stopped in Sandy, near Salt Lake City. We were walking to an equestrian show, Odysseo, when it happened. My brain literally just shut down and stopped working properly.
To have Josie there—and to have her be trained as a lifeguard and trained in first aid, to have her recognize the signs of stroke—essentially saved my life. The acronym is FAST: face, arms, speech, and time. Is their face drooping or uneven? Can they raise their arms or does one droop? Is their speech slurred or strange? And then time. Josie says I had facial drooping and slurred speech. I couldn't put my arm through my jacket and my left flipflop kept falling off. Seconds matter when you experience a stroke, and Josie acted fast and rushed me to the hospital, saving my life.
I had an MRI and CT scan once I arrived and it confirmed that I'd had a full-blown ischemic stroke. I was on the operating table, ready for surgery, before my body stabilized.
I wasn't in as much pain as I was after the motorcycle crash, but I was exhausted. The left side of my body wasn't working like it should, and I was sleeping 15 hours a day. I'd fight for words that were on the tip of my tongue.
Plus, there was the potential that everything could get worse. I went partially blind in my left eye for about 30 minutes several times after the motorcycle collision, but before the big stroke. I never knew at the time that this symptom can be a warning sign of a bigger stroke to come, and it was. Following the stroke I wasn't able to do any heavy lifting for six weeks and was always worried I would cause another.
A stroke is something no one wishes upon anyone, but I still considered myself a lucky man. It could have happened at the base of the Grand Canyon. I'm very lucky that I was within a 20-minute drive of the hospital when it was noticed, and that I had people around me to recognize the symptoms in the first place!
Like I did after my motorcycle crash, I wrote down a list of attainable goals. I brought back my no-excuses philosophy—that grittiness. There's a lot of cases where people make excuses and limit themselves, choosing to never try again.
I had my stroke in April and I wasn't able to push my heart rate to the maximum until September, a month out from national team trials. I had to build up the courage to be able to push myself hard enough to get to my maximum heart rate. I had to believe it wouldn't kill me. It takes a certain amount of faith and trust in yourself, but I did it. I ended up making it back on the World Cup circuit.
I still struggle sometimes. My results aren't as consistent as they once were, and I've also experienced some sadness and anxiety since the stroke. I've read several books about the post-stroke brain, rehabilitation, and post-stroke depression. It made me feel better to read that there is a definitive answer of what it is I'm feeling and to know I'm not alone.
If I hadn't made the decision to come back, none of these small victories would have been realized. If the small victory becomes qualifying for World Cups, maybe getting World Cup medals, qualifying for the Olympics, maybe an Olympic medal, that's where the small victory staircase leads to.
So much has changed over the last three years.
Before the motorcycle crash, I'd been enjoying one of the best periods of my life.
I broke my left fibula the year before Sochi, and I considered myself the underdog at those Olympics. Instead, I came out of them with two medals, silver in the 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500, and the Gilmore Junio story.
When Gil gave up his spot for me in the 1,000 in Sochi—I'd fallen during Canadian Olympic qualifying and wasn't supposed to race—it was so generous. The attention that Gil and I received after those Olympics was quite high and we had a really good season after that. Gil is one of the reasons I decided to try to do for my teammates what he had done for me. To provide the good energy and inspire them to enjoy the process on our way to the next Olympics.
I read a few things later, where Gil said he appreciated me being his teammate and he learned some things along the way. That inspired me to want to continue to train so I can continue to pass on whatever knowledge I have to other athletes, as well.
My relationship with Gil is still really good. We've both had some adversity in one way or another, injuries and whatnot, and funding was an issue for both of us. So we've been through all the ups and downs together now. I don't want to say misery loves company, but it's been inspiring to both of us to be working through these different yet similar issues at this point in our career as we work our way toward being teammates again in Korea. His support means a lot.
My speed skating team expands beyond my teammates on the ice now. Anything I do on the ice, any accomplishment I make, I now realize is celebrated not only with my teammates, but with my support staff who helped so much on my journey to realize that victory.
And then there's my wife, Josie. She was there with me when I had the stroke and, before that, she was in the hospital after my motorcycle collision. Despite all of the pain, questions, and chaos going through my mind, I felt a calmness and warmth when Josie walked into the room. She held my hand and stayed with me and I told the nurses she was my future wife (despite not yet dating).
When I was in the most severe pain of my life, Josie was my guardian angel. The first line in my vows at our wedding was that I never believed in angels until I met Josie. And I vowed to never stop believing in her and in us and in what we're able to accomplish together.
When you're constantly on the road as I was, six months of the year, it kind of forces you to put your life at home on hold. It's awesome to be passionate about the goals you want to achieve, but a lot of other things get put on hold in order to accomplish them. I only realized that after having some injuries and being forced to spend more time at home.
The 2018 Olympics will be my fourth, and I've learned that every Games is different.
I was the rookie at my first Winter Games in Torino in 2006. I was full of energy and excitement, and that was my experience. We won silver in team pursuit. In Vancouver, in 2010, I put a lot of expectations on my shoulders. I wanted three gold medals and, well, I thought I was really good. I won one gold, medalling again in team pursuit. Then, in Sochi, where I felt like the underdog, I won two medals, had the Gil story, and I thought I did a good job.
And now, finally, it's different in another way. I'm the comeback kid.
At the last three Olympics, I was always aiming for medals. I felt like it was all about the medals, but that's not the full story anymore. If I can win another Olympic medal, though, that's obviously the goal.
My long-term goal after the stroke was just to make the Olympics and represent Canada again. Then it evolved to include Josie and sharing an Olympic experience with her. Now she's on Team Canada, too. So I don't want to set any limits to what's possible at the Games. When I get to the line I will be ready to deliver the performances of my life because I know how close I was to losing it, twice.
It's a lot of pressure in one way, but it's just an attempt. If we never attempt things that are super challenging, then we'll never accomplish anything super challenging.
It's not an easy path. There's going to be—there has been—a million setbacks and there's going to be a hundred thousand more. I know it's going to be challenging. If I can come out of my fourth Olympics with another medal, that would be chocolate shavings on top of the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake.
But if I can even walk in the opening ceremonies in PyeongChang, I think I will feel a certain amount of fulfillment.
At the last three Olympics, the opening ceremony marked the beginning of the competition for me. Whereas in PyeongChang, if I imagine myself walking into the opening ceremonies, I imagine a feeling of accomplishment. I feel like I'll be able to take it all in and absorb everything I've been through and everything I've overcome in the last three years, with the motorcycle crash and the stroke, and I'll know it's a huge win. I'll know how much work, how much grit, was needed to get there.
To me, that's what it means to "Be Olympic."
I get excited and emotional and kind of pumped up just thinking about it. When I think about walking in the opening ceremonies in PyeongChang—and being able to reflect back on how patient I've been and what I've overcome—that thought inspires me to continue to be patient and to continue to overcome any obstacles that are in my way.
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