PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA—Denny Morrison is going to climb a mountain. Not any mountain, mind, no. When these Olympics are over, the speed skater and his wife Josie are going to climb Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. Some people want to relax on their honeymoon. Some people want something else.
“Under some ways of interpreting the data, (it’s) the tallest mountain on earth,” said Morrison, after finishing 13th in what might be the final individual race of a storied Canadian Olympic career. “It’s on the equator so the equatorial bulge of the earth makes it furthest point on earth from the centre of earth, and the closest point on earth to the sun.”
Morrison knows from climbs. The motorcycle crash in 2015, which could have killed him; the stroke in 2016, which could have killed him. Both times he sat in a hospital bed, vowing he could come back. After the crash, he visualized his races the same way as he always had, and figured he could do it. And then reality hit, day after day.
“It wasn’t that easy,” said Morrison. “It wasn’t that easy so many times. And I got better and better and better and I had a good race, and then I had the stroke. And I visualized, and I felt good and I thought I would crack the race, and it was not easy. And I got better and better and better to the point that now, being at the Olympics, I thought — and I really believed it … morning warm-up, and I was like, I can do it. I had that belief again.”
“And it wasn’t that easy, right? It’s not an easy sport. It was hard today. And it’s something I have to accept.”
Morrison knew he would have to chase. His right knee has been a hinge that squeaks and wobbles since the motorcycle crash, and of the other injuries he suffered that day — punctured lung, ruptured kidney, bruised heart, a fracture in his spine — it’s the knee that lasted longest. When the race starts, he is the equivalent of a man getting out of bed, a little stiff from a night’s sleep.
And he was 13th after 300 metres, fourth and rising at 700, and then it just wasn’t there. So he crossed the line and it all came to him in a rush: the voyage, the accomplishment. He was here. He thought, I GOT TO THE FINISH LINE.
But he looked at the time, and his heart sank, because he knew. Denny Morrison wouldn’t stop when he crashed, or when his carotid artery failed, because without the ability to push his body and mind, he didn’t know what to do. As he put it, “I felt like I had lost my purpose.” He felt like he was dying the athlete’s death.
So doctors were skeptical, but they gave him parameters. And he kept going, because he didn’t know what else to do.
“Once I got back, it seemed like a privilege to be able to train again,” said Morrison. “And usually the training is the part of speed skating that I hated. I loved competing, (but) training — I would usually go off and play squash and badminton and volleyball and soccer, any other sport in the summer to get my base training.”
“But because of the motorcycle crash, I was barred from any of those pivoting sports because of my knee. Then after the stroke, basically anything that got my heart rate even up, I couldn’t even ride the bike. Once I got back to riding the bike, it was like this privilege that I looked forward to, and something that gave me purpose, and something I felt lucky and special and privileged to participate in. So, yeah, it wasn’t so much why I kept going, but how could I not?”
And at the peak of the climb he found he didn’t have what he thought he would, on the day. You could see the emotion; he said he was sad. But he still has the team pursuit, where his start won’t matter, and it will be another day. Maybe the last Olympic one; probably that. It could still be his fifth medal, which would make him country’s most decorated male long-track Olympic skater.
But on this night, it hurt. But he’s been hurt worse.
“I’m tasting the sting of defeat right now, but I’ve tasted that sting of defeat before, after the motorcycle crash, and after the stroke, and it’s something you have to eventually accept and just remember that defeat’s temporary, and I’m going to keep working forward from this,” said Morrison.
And when it’s over, the mountain. The 32-year-old Morrison feels marriage will be a part of his purpose, and he and Josie looked all over: They had just completed that 800-mile bike and hike trip in the Arizona desert when he had the stroke, and they wanted to push further. They looked. Chimborazo.
“We’re kind of outdoorsy … so it’s the outdoorsy thing, and it’s kind of epic, right?” said Morrison. “We’ve been doing epic things, and this comeback has been about doing something epic. And regardless of my result today, just getting here and racing to that result was still something kind of epic.”
Denny Morrison’s career may be nearing an end, but he wants to keep climbing, because he can. There are finish lines ahead, but not too many, and that’s where everything else will start.