Denny Morrison and the Oval of Broken Dreams

Canada’s men fail again to deliver when it counts

Denny MorrisonFour years ago in Turin, it was Canada’s female speed skaters—and mostly just Cindy Klassen— that carried the team to historic heights. The men, came home with just one medal, a silver in the team pursuit.

And if Canada is to come anywhere close to its lofty goal of owning the podium at the Vancouver 2010 Games, it’s now clear that it will be up to the women again.

In the men’s 1500m race at the Richmond Oval this evening, Denny Morrison again failed to meet his own, and the country’s high expectations, finishing 9th, .80 seconds off the podium, with a time of 1:46.93. Mark Tuitert of the Netherlands—ranked fourth in the world at the distance—was the surprise victor, turning in a scorching 1:45.57, and beating world record holder Shani Davis of the United States by more than half a second. The bronze was taken by Havard Bokko of Norway in 1:46.13.

Morrison was Canada’s best hope for a men’s individual speed skating medal at these Games. In the 2007-08 season he won 11 medals in the 1000m and 1500m races on the World Cup circuit. In 2008, he won the world championship in the 1500m, and 2009 took the bronze. By this season has had far more downs than ups for the 24-year-old from Fort St. Jean, British Columbia. And his dream home Olympics have descended into a nightmare of frustration.

Tonight, sitting in second place with just 400 metres to go, Morrison wasn’t able to keep a medal in his grasp, fading badly down the final stretch and visibly labouring to the finish.

“In the last lap, I just lost all my speed and basically exploded,” he told reporters afterwards.  “It wasn’t that I gave up, or wasn’t trying. I just wasn’t putting it technically into the ice the way I should have been.”

His poor Olympic performances, including a 13th in the 1000m, have left him searching for answers, and lashing out in all directions, including his coaches and Speed Skating Canada.

“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.”

Morrison also took aim at a decision that saw his close friend and former training buddy Davis banned from Calgary’s Olympic Oval after the Turin Games. His greatest improvements, and best seasons, came during and immediately after that partnership.

“I just think it would be nice to train with Shani to have him push me or pull me,” said Morrison. “I feel like that was something I miss…Now I basically have to do these programs by myself.”

It was a slap that visibly angered his coach Marcel Lacroix.

“The program was giving him what he needed for the last three years,” he retorted. “He got a world record with the program. He was a silver medalist at the World Championships in the 1000m, and bronze medalist in the 1500m. So, what? It was working, and now it’s not? I can’t support that.”

Lacroix also took umbrage at the implicit criticism of Morrison’s teammates.

“Denny has a team,” he said.  “They may not be as good as Shani, but he doesn’t train on his own. To me as a coach, that’s not an excuse.”

The question now is whether Morrison will be able to put the disappointment behind him and prepare for next weekend’s team pursuit—an event where Canada retains a legitimate medal shot.

Tonight, the signs were hardly encouraging.

“I can give you the answer my sports psychologist would like me to tell you, or I can give you the answer I really feel,” Morrison said when asked about his readiness. “It may take me a while to get over it. But I will still be able to skate it with a good attitude.”

Lacroix, who described his charge as being “lost in a fog” at the moment, said Morrison has a choice.

“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.”