Meet Denny Morrison, the ‘luckiest man’ on skates

Meet Denny Morrison, the ‘luckiest man’ on skates


‘I felt truly lucky' after the motorcycle accident, 'though part of me wondered if my family came to say goodbye.’

By Denny Morrison for CBC Sports
November 10, 2015
Denny Morrison, left, would find himself in the same training group as his American friend and speed skating icon Shani Davis. (Jens-Ulrich Koch/AFP/Getty Images) Denny Morrison, left, would find himself in the same training group as his American friend and speed skating icon Shani Davis. (Jens-Ulrich Koch/AFP/Getty Images)

My brother Jay has always called me the luckiest guy he's ever known.

Silly, simple things, like getting a front-row parking spot at Costco on a busy Sunday afternoon, hitting on most Yahtzee rolls, and continually landing on Free Parking in Monopoly, led him to this conclusion.

For a time, when I would give keynote addresses, the theme of my storyline was that I was a "lucky man," and the song of the same name by The Verve was the soundtrack to my intro video.

The speech itself actually referred more to how I was fortunate to get to where I was in sport: lucky to have a brother like I have, who is two years older, and a fellow speed skater.

He’s the perfect guy to set a perfect example for me.

Someone for me to chase. Someone who, unknowingly to either of us, had me setting many short-term goals along the way.

I have incredibly supportive parents — basically a requirement now if you want to make it in the world of professional/amateur sport as a Canadian.

I started the first year of my adult speed skating career in Calgary with a coach, Marcel Lacroix, who would later be known around the world as one of the best and most motivational coaches who could be found anywhere.

I have found myself in the same training group as my American friend, Shani Davis, who would become world champion multiple times in a multitude of events beyond what any male speed skater might ever achieve.

 
Morrison was jumping for joy after winning silver in the men’s 1,000 metres at the 2014 Sochi Olympics,  a medal made possible when teammate Gilmore Junio gave up his spot so the B.C. skater could race. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters) Morrison was jumping for joy after winning silver in the men’s 1,000 metres at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a medal made possible when teammate Gilmore Junio gave up his spot so the B.C. skater could race. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Right side of the bubble

And sure, I was lucky to be on the right side of the bubble in a number of close races, including beating Shani in the 1,500-metre world championship race by 0.1 seconds to claim my first-ever world title in 2008.

I had teammates like Matthieu Giroux and Lucas Makowsky, who combined with me to skate an absolutely perfect team pursuit race on our home soil at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, beating the American team in a head-to-head, gold-medal final by 0.19 seconds.

And what about when my teammate Gilmore Junio gave up his spot for me at the 2014 Sochi Olympics? Lucky. And then to win a silver medal with it? Lucky!

I followed that up with a bronze medal in the 1,500.

Of course, it hasn’t been a smooth path. What about experiencing a crossover problem in my 2006 Olympic race against Erben Wennemars — relegating me to 13th?

Or my meltdown in front of the media after terrible individual races at the 2010 Olympic Games? Falling at the 2014 Olympic trials? Or even placing second with Gilmore's epic Sochi story by only 0.04 seconds? How much more epic would it have been to win gold?

Questions like these aren't worth answering, and those unlucky stories in general are simply not worth telling.

I don't want to hear people constantly victimizing themselves in front of me and I wouldn't think others want to listen to that from me, either. It's draining and I don't know why so many flock to those sorts of stories.

 
'Lucky Man' by the Verve is the song that introduces Morrison at keynote speeches.

Matter of perception

My lucky results aren't always about winning. My unlucky results aren't always terrible. It's a matter of perception and how you decide what element of the outcome you will focus on. This often has a lot to do with the expectations from the beginning.

After winning that team pursuit Olympic gold with Matt and Lucas, it took me a long time to see the positive, even in something as simple and clear as being on top of an Olympic podium.

I was too busy victimizing myself over my poor results in my individual distances. I slipped away from the high-performance lifestyle and elite habits of a top-level athlete. Some may say I went into a voluntary depression, which was reflected in my results the following season.

On New Year’s Eve (2011/2012) I finally made the resolution: "No excuses." This worked for me on many levels. It kept me in check upfront, at times of possibly making an initial mistake such as poor choices regarding sleep habits or nutrition.

It also prevented me from using past mistakes as an excuse for why I can’t do something well now. The “no excuses” philosophy makes it possible to look deeper and more truthfully at the situation from all angles, revealing real ways to see immediate improvement, rather than blaming things outside of your current control.

 

High risk of death

My current story involves driving a motorcycle into the side of a car at 50 km/h. According to the graphic below, a pedestrian hit at 50 km/h has an 85 per cent chance of death.

Assuming the vehicle coming towards me and turning across my path had at least some momentum in the vector of my direction, you could argue our cumulative impact speed was close to 60 km/h, which yields a frighteningly high risk of death.

So, was I lucky or unlucky?

You wake up in a hospital 36 hours later. A titanium rod has been permanently, surgically, implanted inside your body to stabilize your broken femur and you have no recollection of how you ended up there.

The doctor asks, "Do you know where you are?"

Your response is the most recent memory you have on hand — you are in New Zealand for your off-season vacation.

Wrong. You're in Calgary.

"Do you know what happened?" he asks.

Well, assuming my last memory is from New Zealand and now I'm in Calgary, logic suggests my airplane must have crashed upon landing.

Wrong. If you were on a plane, you would’ve landed safely in Calgary.

"What's the date?"

April 27th, the day I was supposed to return from New Zealand.

Wrong. That was almost two weeks ago. It's May 8th now.

Morrison's friends were so impressed with how well he came out of his motorcycle accident that they decided to buy him a lottery ticket for good luck. (Denny Morrison/Instagram) Morrison's friends were so impressed with how well he came out of his motorcycle accident that they decided to buy him a lottery ticket for good luck. (Denny Morrison/Instagram)

Extensive list of injuries

The doctors go on to explain the collision, followed by the extensive list of injuries caused from it: a punctured lung; lacerated liver and kidneys; bruised heart and internal organs; a fractured lumbar spine transverse process; a cut on my left quad; fully torn anterior cruciate ligament, along with sprains to all other ligaments in the right knee.

Finally, a moderate head injury, which further explains some of my fragmented memory. It was only a few days later, following my own complaints of pain, that we eventually discovered my fractured radius.

Although I can't actually remember it having happened at all anymore, beyond what people tell me what I told them, that was the first conversation I presumably remember having with the doctors, 36 hours after the collision.

Well before that happened, my sister Julie was by my side in the ER within an hour of the collision and apparently, between painful moans as doctors stitched a laceration on my left quad, I asked my sister if I was going to die.

My mom flew to Calgary and was at my side by the time I returned to the ICU after surgery, the morning after breaking my femur.

Goodbye visit?

Having these people with me when I woke, I know I must have felt truly lucky at the time — even though part of me wondered if they came to say goodbye.

I was in the hospital for eight nights and my sister kept a tally of the nearly 60 people who came to visit over that time. I certainly appreciate their visits, gifts and encouragement. Unfortunately, I must admit that I have far more vivid memories of the terrifying hallucinations that I experienced at night when no one was visiting.

I thought that everyone in the hospital was now plotting to come kill me, and aside from using the bed sheets to wipe away sweat that was beading into my eyes, I was entirely unable to move. (Hallucinations are a common side effect of the horse tranquilizer Ketamine I was initially administered with).

Morrison, seen here in the hospital with two of his friends, needed an ice cold cloth on his forehead to help reduce his high internal temperature. (Photo courtesy Denny Morrison) Morrison, seen here in the hospital with two of his friends, needed an ice cold cloth on his forehead to help reduce his high internal temperature. (Photo courtesy Denny Morrison)

Time ticking away

On Day 2, I asked my doctor how long I would be trapped there for, as my brother's wedding was taking place in seven days. My brother asked me to be his best man and I really didn't want to miss it.

The doctor said, “No way.” I asked a nurse for a list of hurdles I needed to overcome to get myself released and she helped me.

These were essentially the first goals I set for myself after the accident: go to the washroom, (to show the digestive system is functioning properly); stop urinating blood (to show lacerated kidneys have ceased internal bleeding); increase my forced expiratory volume in one second to over 1,500cc (to show my pneumothorax issue was healing); lower cortisol levels in blood test to safe levels; lower blood pressure below 200 over 130; pass a post-concussion "SCAT" exam (to prove a reasonable day-to-day cognitive function); show crutch use capability (to assure I was able to maintain a minimum level of self-reliance.)

Many of these things just required the time to allow the body to heal. But that didn't stop me from practising on the lung volume measurement device continuously, or refusing to take anymore hydro-morph (IV painkiller medication).

 
Morrison, second from right, recovered in time to stand in as best man at his brother Jay’s wedding. (Photo courtesy Denny Morrison) Morrison, second from right, recovered in time to stand in as best man at his brother Jay’s wedding. (Photo courtesy Denny Morrison)

Can’t stop the wedding bells

I made plans with my friend, Ryan Stickel, to pick me up from the hospital and drive me 1,000 kilometres to my brother's wedding, back in Fort St. John, B.C. I studied/practised for a SCAT exam however I could, and I sucked as much water out of the sponge as I was allowed. (I wasn't allowed to eat, or drink water for two days, except water absorbed by a small sponge on a stick, dipped into a cup of water, then used to moisten my lips).

On the morning of May 15th, the day before my brother's wedding, doctors came into my room and said my blood results were good and I could be released in as little as three hours, pending the results of my cognitive exams. Finally, the occupational therapist said I was good enough to use crutches.

From the hospital, my friend drove me straight home, which went past the site of the accident. I packed a bag, grabbed my suit and arrived at the wedding just a few hours before the ceremony started.

Lucky.

I thought I put on a pretty good face for the wedding day, but upon viewing photos after the fact, have since realized how dire of a state I was in.

I’m not sure how this story is going to conclude yet, but I have a feeling I might get lucky.

(Large photos courtesy Getty Images, Canadian Press and Denny Morrison)

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