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Olympian Denny Morrison returns to racing in speedskating comeback, Part 2

Speedskater Denny Morrison trains at the Olympic Oval in Calgary, Alta., Monday, Oct. 17, 2016.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
October 17, 2016 - 3:35 PM

CALGARY - The words "you don't have to come back and see me ever again" from his neurologist was Denny Morrison's green light to get back to what he loves.

Less than six months after suffering a stroke, the owner of four Olympic speedskating medals is back racing.

Morrison didn't start pushing his heart rate to the maximum until last month, but he put down the fastest 3,000 metres of his life on Sept. 30.

The 31-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., will race the 1,000 and 1,500 metres — in which he won Olympic silver and bronze respectively in 2014 — at this week's national team trials in Calgary.

The trials determines Canada's team for the first four World Cups this season.

Morrison was buoyed by Monday's training session. He saw progress in his starts and accelerations, which were elements he wasn't even allowed to train until recently.

"I can tell you I feel more race ready after doing some of these aggressive starts and aggressive accelerations behind these sprinters," he said.

"It feels like I skated a personal best today, which is why I'm in a good mood right now."

Morrison's emotions are more in flux post-stroke. In conversations, he'll search for the odd word that has escaped him.

Humour is his coping mechanism. Morrison jokes he could be in a bad mood by the end of the interview, but he's spent enough time with other stroke victims since his own to know it is no laughing matter.

"I'm trying to poke fun at myself to deal with it, but a stroke is a pretty serious thing," he said. "I'm looking forward to working more with the Heart and Stroke Foundation to raise awareness for the signs of stroke."

He's re-started a comeback that began after a motorcycle accident in May, 2015. He sustained a concussion, a punctured lung, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, bruised liver and kidneys and a small fracture in a bone near his spine.

Morrison raced for the first time after that accident March 18 at a Canada Cup. Just over a month later, he and girlfriend Josie Spence biked 25 days on the 1,200-kilometre Arizona Trail.

En route back to Canada, Morrison began slurring words and fumbling for his sunglasses with his left hand. He was hospitalized for a few days in Salt Lake City before returning to Calgary.

Two stents were surgically implanted in his neck in June.

"Blood pressure going high with these stents in your neck that close to your brain is a bit of a risk factor for stroke," Morrison said. "How do you keep your heart rate low if you want to train to make a comeback for speedskating?"

He was initially limited to gentle bike riding. When he was allowed to increase his heart rate, it was in five-per cent increments with coach Bart Schouten checking his heart-rate monitor after every hard effort.

"After the motorcycle accident, I could push myself as hard as my pain tolerance will allow and my heart rate, there was no limitation really,' Morrison said. "With the stroke . . . I could not raise my blood pressure and potentially have one of these stents come lose and travel into my brain and kill me.

"When you put it in that simple of terms you're like 'all right', but you get a little stir crazy too."

Morrison won Olympic gold in 2010 with Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux in team pursuit. He also earned team pursuit silver in 2006.

While no direct link has been proven, Schouten thinks Morrison may have sustained arterial damage in the motorcycle accident that caused the stroke.

Morrison said he was a lucky man after the crash. The stroke tested that theory, but he still believes it to be true.

"I was asked 'so do you still consider yourself the lucky man?'" he said. "It was kind of a shot in the gut. I had a stroke out of nowhere right? That doesn't seem very lucky, but to have a stroke and survive . . . and then to get back on ice and skate and do what I love?

"I feel like I'm massively lucky to be out here doing what I do. I want to do it the best I can. Hopefully the stroke survivors I've met who are struggling with severe stroke symptoms can see that as a beacon of what's possible."

His coach shakes his head in amazement at Morrison's healing powers.

"After the motorcycle accident and then the stroke, you're more worried about 'is he ever going to have a normal life after this?'" Schouten said.

"We saw his determination in wanting to come back. It's crazy how quick he heals and how strong his body must be to come back to this level."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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