SOCHI, Russia — Denny Morrison almost never falls. He could never remember falling in a race, and maybe only three times in more than a decade of training. But in late December, on his final lap of the 1,000-metre race at the Canadian Olympic trials, with the Olympics perhaps 50 metres away, the veteran speedskater clipped his right heel, and he fell.
He slid across the line late and failed to qualify. Morrison had hit low points before — he broke his leg while skiing in 2012 — but this time, he needed someone to pick him up.
The 28-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., made it through in other events, but never let go of the hope someone would help. Morrison skated the 1,000 metres at the Olympics four years ago in Vancouver, and in Italy four years before that, but he never skated well.
“Honestly? Every time that there was a press conference — they announced our Olympic team in Calgary — I was hoping someone would stand up and say, ‘I want to take this moment to announce that I’m going to give my spot to Denny Morrison,’” he said. “But that’s just me and my ego, hoping that this sort of thing would happen.”
And then, on Monday night, he received a text message on the strange Russian phone the Canadian Olympic Committee had given him before the Sochi Olympics.
“It said a random Russian number: ‘Hey, you ready for the 1,000? You can have my spot if you want,’” Morrison said. “I was like, ‘is someone pulling my leg here? Because this isn’t funny if you’re screwing with me.’”
It was not a prank, as it turned out. The message was from Gilmore Junio, a 23-year-old from Calgary, and he was surrendering his spot in the race. It was an unusual move made after a discussion with Canadian coaches, but it was exactly the lift Morrison had craved.
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“That was an Olympic moment; special in and of itself,” Morrison said.
“It’s just an easy decision,” Junio said.
And on Wednesday night in Russia, that moment led to another, with Morrison crossing the line at Adler Arena in 1:08.43 to win a silver medal, the first individual Olympic medal of his career.
“I was in disbelief; I still basically am,” said Morrison. “It’s a dream. A fairytale story. And it’s hard to believe that it’s happening.”
Dutch skater Stefan Groothuis won gold in 1:08.39.
“The only thing that could have made it better was 5/100ths of a second,” Morrison said with a smile. “But I’m pretty satisfied with silver, to be honest.”
He went out in the 17th of 20 pairings, with Dutch skater Michel Mulder, a member of the most powerful team in the sport. The Netherlands has won 10 medals in Sochi, and all of them have been in speedskating.
Morrison went out with the hope of staying close to Mulder, because that would probably put him in decent position overall. He would go out hard, try to stay close.
“I actually surprised myself with how close I was to him with one lap to go,” he said.
“I know that he raced from his heart as much as anything,” said his mother, Carol. “And he hasn’t told me this, but I know Gilmore was in the back of his mind. And I know he was thinking: ‘He’s not going to be sorry on this decision.’”
“Like his brother Jay said, he’s always been able to crash and burn, and then he picks himself up, pulls himself back together, and takes off like nothing ever happened,” said his father, Dennis. “He works hard.”
Morrison had already crashed and, having been picked up by his teammate, he returned to the work. He beat Mulder to the line, finishing 5/100ths of a second from the gold.
“What Gilmore did, it’s just unbelievable,” Carol said. “The gesture is the kindest showing of Olympic spirit that you could ever, ever have. And Denny was humbled and pumped and almost in disbelief — all at the same time.”
Morrison already owned two Olympic medals. He was part of the gold medal win in team pursuit in Vancouver, adding to the silver won in the same event in Italy. It was in the 1,000 metres where he stumbled, finishing no higher than 13th in either Games.
On Wednesday, after a hand from his teammate, he skated the race he wanted.
“And not just because I won the medal,” he said, “but actually crossing the line, feeling like I left it all on the ice, and knowing that I could be satisfied with that race even if one or two guys in the last four pairs came and beat me off the podium.”