Canada's Denny Morrison takes bronze in 1,500m speedskating
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, February 15, 2014 10:16AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, February 15, 2014 3:30PM EST
SOCHI, Russia -- One of Canada's best stories of these Olympics was lying alone on a cross-country ski trail barely a year ago, his leg broken and his Sochi dreams in doubt.
But on the heels of a stunning silver-medal performance earlier in the week, Denny Morrison wrote another page in his remarkable comeback story Saturday, winning bronze in the 1,500 metres longtrack speedskating event.
"It's the best week of my life, man," said Morrison. "I liken it to a little bit of a fairy tale."
There could be more to come as well -- Canada is the defending Olympic champion in the team pursuit, which begins next Friday.
The 28-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., who skated in the 12th of 20 pairings, posted the fastest time to that point -- one minute 45.22 seconds -- pumping a fist in the air when he looked up at the clock.
"That's what you dream of when you think of your Olympic race and you visualize it, you want to have the best time no matter what when you finish your race and hopefully it holds up," Morrison said. "Then the waiting game goes on and on and on."
In the fourth-last pairing, Zbigniew Brodka of Poland crossed in 1:45.00 to bump Morrison down to second, setting up for a dramatic final few minutes. Koen Verweij of the Netherlands also skated 1:45.00 in the final pairing, forcing timers to go to thousandths of a second to determine the winner -- Brodka edging Verweij by 0.003 to capture Poland's first Olympic medal in speedskating.
It was the closest 1,500 in Olympic history.
Morrison was the reigning world champion in the 1,500 and the World Cup leader when he broke his left fibula while skiing alone in Fernie, B.C., just before Christmas in 2012. He went off course and hit a tree lying on the ground, his ski tip going under the tree, his leg going over.
He was alone at the time, so had to "scootch" himself back to the main runs to find help.
"I honestly can say I don't think, not even for 30 seconds, that I thought it was over. I remember laying there with my broken leg in the snow and thinking 'All right, this will heal in about six weeks and I'll be back on the ice,' " said Morrison. "The broken leg almost acted as remotivation to come back as the underdog."
Morrison's comeback story got off to a phenomenal start earlier in the week when he claimed silver after teammate Gilmore Junio gave up his berth he'd earned in qualifying.
Coach Bart Schouten said Junio offered up his spot back in December after the trials.
Morrison's comeback turned into a lot longer than six weeks. The broken leg, he said, turned into a sprained ankle, then fascia, back and hip problems.
He just barely earned a spot on Canada's Olympic team, failing to qualify in the 500 metres and then falling in the 1,000 metres at the trials.
Saturday's second medal at the Adler Arena oval was double Olympic redemption for Morrison, who has two Olympic team pursuit medals -- silver in 2006 and gold in Vancouver.
But he had twice come away empty-handed in the individual events, finishing 11th in the 1,500 at the 2006 Turin Games before settling for ninth four years ago in Vancouver.
"It's something that I've been dreaming about since (Turin), I thought I had what it took (in 2006), and it never quite panned out," Morrison said. "Then four years later, in Vancouver, I thought everything was lined up for success like this. Didn't work out."
He took a year off and returned with renewed motivation.
Schouten doesn't believe Morrison is necessarily a better skater now than he was in Turin and Vancouver -- he's just learned to deal with the pressure that comes with competing on sport's biggest stage.
"He had a better approach (in Sochi), he's matured a lot. He's really made big steps,"Schouten said. "I think he knew he was skating well coming into this and that gave him a lot of confidence. But he also knew the mental approach that we've worked on had him in a better state of mind. He was in a really good state of mind.
"What he did here was keep it together. He was mentally tough and strong. He grew up."
On a festive night that featured a clog-wearing brass band belting out tunes such as "YMCA" and in front of a sea of both Russian and orange-clad Dutch fans, Morrison hoped to go out hard and then hold on.
"I've had lots of 1500s where I've tried to go out a little conservative -- (knowing) the last lap is going to hurt a lot, I want to save some energy -- and that's never worked for me before," Morrison said. "That's one of the things about the 1500, it's a scary race.
"You go to the start line and you're like 'This is going to hurt.' But for me especially, I go out hard and I hang on, or try and hang on, and today it worked out a lot better than in Vancouver."
A good 20 minutes after racing Morrison had just regained his breath when he arrived to speak with reporters. The wait between his race and the final pairing that secured his bronze medal he spent rocking back and forth from the pain.
"My legs hurt so much, and I was just sitting there hoping that pain would pass eventually," Morrison said. "And it comes in waves.
"I can stand up when my race finishes and high-five my coach, and then take about half of a victory lap before the first wave hits, and then passes after about another lap or two. And then the second wave comes in exponentially harder and basically cripples me and I have to either sit down or stand up or sit down.
"And then I just want to vomit," he added, laughing.
Morrison plans to march to the podium once more in the team pursuit.
"Bart, when he saw on the last pair one of the guys was 1.5 seconds behind and he knew he wasn't going to beat me, said 'Two medals man, that's awesome,"' Morrison said. "I said 'Let's make it three.' "
Mathieu Giroux of Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., was 19th while Lucas Makowsky of Regina was 28th and Vincent de Haitre of Cumberland, Ont., was 33rd.
"I saw Mat's race, I saw Lucas's race, they had some good ones," Morrison said. "I think we have what it takes to put down some really good TPs, and we've all been training together really well the last few months."
It was another rough outing for two-time silver medallist Shani Davis and the rest of the American team, who hastily went through a suit change because of concerns their new high-tech attire was actually slowing them down.
The U.S. got approval to switch back to the suits it wore during a successful World Cup season in the fall, but it sure didn't help. Brian Hansen was the top American, finishing seventh.
The 31-year-old Davis, silver medallist at the last two Olympics, faded badly over the final lap and wound up 11th.