Near-death experiences have taken a toll on Denny Morrison

During the three years since speed skater Denny Morrison raced to a pair of Olympic medals in Sochi, the Canadian has suffered a motorcycle accident and a stroke. Today, Morrison still struggles both on and off the ice, a reality he needs to overcome if he hopes to qualify for a fourth Olympic Games.

Motorcycle accident, stroke still impacting life of Canadian speed skater

Canadian speed skater Denny Morrison continues to struggle on and off the ice after sustaining a major motorcycle accident and suffering through a stroke. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

A speed skating race is simple. There is a start and an end. The clock grants a time. Someone wins, and someone loses.

Life, however, is not always that simple.

During the three years since Canadian Denny Morrison raced to a pair of Olympic medals in Sochi, the fabric of his existence has been re-woven through love and trauma.

And today, Morrison is still enduring personal and professional difficulties. Because life is not a race, and this is not a triumphant story.

At least, not yet.

In April of 2016, Morrison and his then-girlfriend, now fiancée, Josie Spence cycled the Arizona Trail, an almost 1,300-kilometre journey from the Mexico border to Utah.

Finishing the over three-week trek was a milestone for Morrison. 

They arrived in Utah shortly before the one-year anniversary of the May 2015 day when Morrison nearly died.

On that day, he obliterated his motorcycle during a collision with a car in Calgary, where he lives and trains.

A police officer at the scene marvelled at how Morrison survived the crash.

But he did, overcoming a fractured right femur, bruised liver and kidneys, a punctured lung; plus a broken portion of his spine, torn ACL, and a concussion.

Almost a year later, and only two days after completing the Arizona Trail, Morrison was slammed with another life-altering setback.

Morrison, Spence, and their friend, Elaine Hartrick, were driving back to Calgary through Utah when they stopped in Sandy, a suburb of Salt Lake City.

They were walking to the well-known equestrian show, Odysseo, when Spence noticed Morrison behaving oddly.

"He started losing his motor movements," Spence said, describing how Morrison couldn't keep his flip flop on his foot or put his arm through his jacket. 

She had given him a Ritz cracker, but Morrison hadn't wiped the crumbs from his face, and he was drooling.

"Initially I thought he was groggy but then as all of these [symptoms] progressed further and I was like, 'there's something wrong with him, he needs to get to the hospital, I think he's having a stroke,'" she said.

Spence, also a national team speed skater, texted their medical team lead who told them to go to a hospital immediately.

Fortunately, they were minutes away from Sandy's Alta View Hospital where Morrison was instantly admitted and treated for an ischemic stroke, caused by a tear in his right carotid artery — adding to the calamitous thread in the 31-year-old's story.

The good and bad

Over the following months, Morrison embarked on what one of his doctors calls an unbelievable recovery.

By late summer he was fully cleared to join his teammates at a training camp.

At a World Cup event in December, the Fort St. John, B.C., native and fellow Canadians Jordan Belchos and Ted-Jan Bloemen won a silver medal in team pursuit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

But Morrison continues to struggle, both on and off the ice.

He competed at the first four World Cups of the season, where his times were slower compared to past years. He often raced in Division B, instead of with the faster skaters in Division A.

His best individual finish was a 20th-place showing in the 1,500 metres at the same Kazakhstan event.

"Not all my results have been perfect," Morrison said. "Certainly they haven't been as good as they once were. That's just another difficult part of it."

On a personal level, he now talks openly about his sadness, anxiety, and guilt since the stroke.

For example, Morrison recalls one particular day when Spence, 23, noticed he was upset. Concerned, she asked him what was wrong, and he became inexplicably sad, "I don't know what's wrong," he said.

Morrison has become so intensely curious to understand his post-stroke brain that he has read multiple books, including an entire textbook on stroke rehabilitation. 

In one of those pages, in a section about post-stroke depression, he found his challenges written out better than he could explain them.

"It made me feel better to read that there is a definitive answer of what it is I'm feeling," he said.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation reports that at least one third of stroke survivors will experience depression, for one reason or another. 

Morrison speaks almost philosophical when he attempts to describe how his motorcycle crash, falling in love with Spence and his stroke have changed him.

"I feel like I've become a more compassionate and kind person because of dating Josie," he said.

Spence agrees. 

"The stroke really showed him how special life is, and how special this relationship is," she said. "He has this new outlook on life that makes everything a lot more sentimental."

They became engaged in December, and plan to get married in May.

Before then, Morrison will compete at the world single distances speed skating championships in Korea.

The competition begins Thursday, exactly one year before the start of PyeongChang 2018, which Morrison hopes to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games next season.


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