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Canadian speedskater Morrison writes perfect Olympic ending to feel-good story

Silver medallist Canada's Denny Morrison celebrates during the flower ceremony for the men's 1000-meter speedskating race at the Adler Arena Skating Center during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Matt Dunham
February 12, 2014 - 1:20 PM

SOCHI, Russia - How about having Gilmore Junio carry the Canadian flag into the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, says Denny Morrison.

How about having both long-track speedskaters lead Canada into Fisht Stadium?

Morrison, taking the place vacated two days earlier by his friend and teammate Junio, raced to silver in the 1,000 metres between a pair of Dutch skaters Wednesday to write the final chapter to a remarkable story of selflessness and doing the right thing.

"It's a dream, a fairytale story," said an emotional Morrison after earning his third Olympic medal in three Games. "It's difficult to really believe that it's happening."

Said Junio: "I think that's the big power of the Olympics. Anything can happen. Expect the unexpected."

Having come back from a broken leg the year before, Morrison agonizingly clipped a skate on his heel at the Canadian trials in December, falling 50 metres from the finish line and failing to qualify for the 1,000 metres. There was a reskate an hour later at the trials, but his tank was empty and he missed out by four-hundredths of a second.

So the 28-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., came to Sochi with a place in the 1,500 metres and team pursuit but as a reserve in one of his bread-and-butter distances.

Speed Skating Canada then approached Junio, a 23-year-old from Calgary who was 10th in Monday's 500 metres, and asked whether he would consider giving his place up to the veteran.

"It was 100 per cent my decision. They left it in my court," said Junio, who is better in the 500 than the 1,000. "They said 'You can talk to Denny.'

"But it was an easy decision. The guy's been skating unreal these past few weeks and I wanted to see him skate the 1,000 metres."

Junio also had his own reasons.

"I've a lot to learn in the 1,000 and I think the Olympics, representing Canada, isn't kind of the place to learn such lessons," he said. "We're here to perform. So I thought maybe in four years, hopefully my 500 will be good and my 1,000 will be even better, that I won't have to make this decision. Maybe someone will make it for me."

On Monday night, Morrison got a text on one of the phones provided by the Canadian team. He recalled the message as: "Hey man, are you ready to race the 1,000? I'll give you my spot."

Because the phone was Russian, he did not recognize the number attached to the text.

"I knew it was from a teammate but I thought maybe someone stole his phone ... I had to go hear it in person," Morrison said.

He jumped on a bike and went to Canada Olympic House where Junio was with both skaters' families.

"I heard it from the horse's mouth," said Morrison. "That was an Olympic moment, special in and of itself."

"He told me we need some medals on this team and he believed I could win a medal and historically I had better results in the thousand than him," he added. "And so it sounded like he wanted me to go and get this one."

Junio's recollection of the text was slightly different: "Are you ready for the 1,000 metres? Yea or nay?"

Morrison, who had been preparing for his 1,500 race, said he was so pumped he could probably have raced then and there.

"I had to put on some relaxing music and calm down," he said.

The good karma awaiting Junio must be massive. Morrison says that may surface very soon.

"I've heard a rumour that Speed Skating Canada is pushing to have Gilmore Junio as the Canadian flag-bearer at the closing ceremonies," he said. "Maybe that's something we can get behind, because I think that would be really special.

"He does embody what it means to be a Canadian Olympian, I think."

Speed Skating Canada, Morrison and other Canadian Olympians including bobsledder Jesse Lumsden and alpine skier Brad Spence quickly turned to Twitter to press the cause.

Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands won in one minute 8.39 seconds, ahead of Morrison in 1:08.43 and 500-metre champion Michel Mulder of the Netherlands in 1:08.74.

Vincent De Haitre of Cumberland, Ont., was 20th while William Dutton of Humboldt, Sask., was 26th and Muncef Ouardi of Quebec City was 32nd.

Groothuis, a two-time world champion, posted his time in the 16th pairing. Morrison and Mulder went next, clocking the second and third-best times.

Three pairings remained, including American star Shani Davis, but none of the remaining skaters could knock them off the podium.

Morrison, his body aching from his skate, thought he had a chance to stay second but couldn't bring himself to watch.

Junio, meanwhile, was asked whether he should get a piece of the medal.

"He said he's going to break it in half but I think he'll just keep it at his place and I'll come over every now and then and look at it and remember this," he said with a laugh.

But as befitting the former hockey player that he is, Junio does not plan to touch the medal until he wins one himself.

Junio did more than step aside for Morrison, however. He helped him with technique on the start.

It worked. Morrison said his opening time of 16.6 over 200 metres Thursday was second only to the 16.58 he clocked in 2007.

Mulder became the first double medallist at the Sochi Games. Morrison, meanwhile, became the only non-Dutch male speedskater to win a medal here although the Netherlands still had a hand in his medal via his Dutch coach Bart Schouten.

"The only thing that could have made it better was five-hundredths of a second," Morrison said. "But I'm pretty satisfied with silver, to be honest."

Particularly because in his third Olympics, he finally delivered the race he was capable of. In his prior individual races at the games, he said he was "too anxious, too excited." Morrison said he would have celebrated Wednesday's performance even if it did not come with a medal.

But it did. And it sent Morrison climbing into the stands, where he gave his girlfriend Nicole a smooch of Olympic proportions before hugging his parents, brother and sister, his cousin and his cousin's friend, his brother's girlfriend, and Nicole's parents, sister and best friend.

"My girlfriend got maybe the biggest celebration," he said with a laugh.

When Morrison stepped on the podium for the flower ceremony — the medals come Thursday — he literally jumped for joy.

Morrison and Junio had talked about hitting Europe after the season.

"I don't want to make it about money but I feel like I should definitely buy him a beer, a least," Morrison said.

In the midst of the feel-good story, the Dutch continued their domination.

The Dutch have now four of the five speedskating finals at the Olympics, including all three of the men's event. They have claimed 10 of the 15 medals up for grabs so far, sweeping both the men's 500 and 5,000 metres.

Morrison, a three-time Olympian who won gold in the team pursuit four years ago in Vancouver and silver in Turin in 2006, has two fourth-place finishes in the 1,000 on the World Cup circuit this season but had not really signalled an Olympic medal was on the horizon.

He was 13th in the 1,000 at the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Morrison say the fall at the Canadian trials was a freak accident. He had never fallen in a race before and had tumbled perhaps just three times in training over his career.

The fall was especially painful given he had fought his way back from breaking his leg cross-country skiing. That injury absence prevented him from collecting the kind of performances that might have led to Olympic pre-qualification.

"I've never been as disappointed as I was when I fell at the Olympic trials and I didn't end up qualifying in the end," he said

Morrison also paid tribute to Speed Skating Canada and its support staff for helping him recover from the broken leg and a string of ailments (ribs, hip, back) that followed.

"I just think it's so cool our team coming together," he said. "Even though it's my individual medal, it's a team medal that we can celebrate together because of everyone having a part in it ... I can't thank everyone enough."

The Dutch medallists applauded Junio's move and welcomed Morrison's medal. But don't expect a Dutch speed skater to move aside for a teammate.

"In Holland if you qualify for a distance, you're directly one of the favourites too," said Mulder. "We've got a really high level ... I think that's hard for me. I wouldn't give my spot away that fast.

"If I would qualify for the 5K, I would give the spot (away) directly but I would never qualify."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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