Hot Pursuit

Denny Morrison likes a good story. The one about how his team took the gold is the one he enjoys the most.
Hot Pursuit
Photograph by Todd Korol/Reuters

You can forgive Denny Morrison for rubbing it in. Fresh from the podium, with the country’s 11th gold medal of the Games dangling from his neck—a wire-to-wire besting of the United States in the men’s speed skating team pursuit—he stopped to make a point. “We’re not just doing this for ourselves. We’re doing this for all of Canada.”

He and teammates Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux were among the few to believe they had a shot at hitting the top of the podium on the final day of the Olympic long-track competition. But in the preliminaries, the trio laid low defending champions Italy, in an Olympic record time of three minutes, 42.38 seconds. In the second round, they went even faster, beating Norway in 3:42.22. And when it was all on the line, they left a formidable American squad—including five-time medallist Chad Hedrick—eating their dust, crossing the line in 3:41.37, grabbing gold by a margin of 0.21 seconds. It was the first, and only, medal for Canada’s male long-track speed skaters at the 2010 Games. (The women won four despite failing to medal in the team pursuit.) And for Morrison, at least, it was sweet relief.

Olympic redemption doesn’t usually come so quickly. Those who crumble under the immense pressure of the sporting world’s brightest spotlight often have to wait four more years—and sometimes forever—tormented by their own failure, and the media’s insistence on reliving it. Another teammate, Jeremy Wotherspoon, for example, retires after Vancouver 2010 as one of speed skating’s all-time greats, the winner of more World Cup races than any man ever. But his stumble at the starting line in Salt Lake City, and subsequent inability to ever improve on the silver he won as a 21-year-old buck back at the 1998 Nagano Games, became the defining story of his career.

Morrison got his silver in the team pursuit as a 20-year-old in Turin. In the last three seasons, he hit the World Cup podium 27 times, winning a world championship in the 1,500-m in 2008, and silver in the 1,000-m in 2009. But his run-up to Vancouver had been inconsistent, and his performance at these Games disconcerting. In the 1,000-m on Feb. 17, he finished 13th, a distant 1.36 seconds behind his friend, former training partner and gold medallist Shani Davis of the U.S. In the 1,500-m, Feb. 20, he came ninth, an identical 1.36 seconds behind Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands. And when Morrison was pressed for answers, he threw his coaches, and Speed Skating Canada, under the bus. “I don’t know if it’s something with the program or what,” he said. “It’s been kind of frustrating to know that I was getting closer and closer to the Olympics and skating poorer and poorer when I get tired.”

Marcel Lacroix, the man who has coached Morrison for the last six years, dusted himself off, and put the focus firmly back on his athlete. “Denny is disappointed that he didn’t get an individual medal, but right now his only shot is the team pursuit,” he said. “You can sit and cry, or you get out there again. A medal is a medal.”

The message was received. Morrison made a public apology. And on Vancouver’s final Saturday, there was Lacroix screaming, and banging the ice in triumph, as the trio crossed the line in tight formation. Giroux, a 24-year-old Olympic rookie from Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., who made the switch over from short track just two years ago, threw his arms in the air and yelled. Morrison and Makowsky, a 22-year-old from Regina, also at his first Games, both doubled over in pain, had to wait to celebrate until they caught enough breath. In the stands, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, exchanged high-fives with freestyler Jennifer Heil. Near ice level, Charles Hamelin, fresh off his two gold medals in short track Friday night, bounced up and down like a prizefighter taking the ring. For their victory lap, Morrison donned a Team Canada hockey jersey—number 10, with his name on the back.

Two weeks, two disappointments and a very steep learning curve. The Olympics were “a bit of a roller coaster of emotions,” said Morrison. “But I liked the conclusion the best. A story with a good ending, and turmoil in between. It’s awesome, man. To come away with gold, as a team, there’s no better way to finish off the Olympics for us.”