After near death Denny Morrison isn’t just surviving, he’s hungry

« Just breathe, just breathe. »

These are the critical words paramedics repeated on May 7 to Olympian Denny Morrison after his motorcycle careened into a left-turning car at a Calgary intersection.

In photographs large pieces of metal and plastic surround the eviscerated carcass of Morrison’s motorbike. As if it’d been tossed in a giant blender. Later, attending fire fighters assumed they were cleaning up a motorcycle fatality.

Denny Morrison should be dead.

Two choices

Just over 14 weeks later and Morrison is sitting in the stands at Calgary’s Olympic Oval gazing across the famed ice where he trained for his latest two Olympic medals. It’s a calm Saturday and an exhibition race is about to start.

“Lucky or victim. What do you choose?” he offers, contemplating his physical fortunes. Of the nine significant injuries he suffered, doctors told him his fractured right femur, ripped liver, ruptured kidneys or punctured lung would have each been life threatening, on their own. He also broke off a piece of his spine, tore his ACL, smashed his elbow, and was concussed.

An x-ray image of the metal rod installed to support Denny Morrison's right femur. (Photo: Denny Morrison)

An x-ray image of the metal rod installed to support Denny Morrison’s right femur. (Photo: Denny Morrison)

« I woke up in the hospital and I had no idea what was going on. It’s taken a while for the weight of the accident to sink in and how lucky I am to be here, » says the 29-year-old who has intensely rehabilitated since days after surgeons put a titanium rod in his leg.

His first ‘session’ was attempting to stand in the hospital. He lasted one second, before falling back asleep for three hours.

« It’s been a long process, it’s one little small victory after another, » said Morrison who was initially supposed to lose his crutches by eight weeks at the earliest. He was skating gingerly under six weeks after the accident ‘to beat’ his previous broken leg record.

Denny Morrison overcomes broken leg before Sochi:

His positive response seems so automatic you wonder if it’s just his nature. Sure, it’s not easy. His first time on a stationary bike 12 days after the accident he managed 1% of a normal wattage. During weeks four to eight he re-learned how to heel-toe walk, to avoid a life-long limp.

Denny Morrison on the stationary bike 12 days after his crash.

Denny Morrison on the stationary bike 12 days after his crash. (Photo: Denny Morrison)

And he had a lot of time to think. Morrison watched TED Talks and ruminated on the gratefulness teachings of David Steindl-Rast, and it helped, « In my case to just be laying on the couch with a broken body and not be laying in a morgue, » says Morrison.

« If you consider yourself lucky you’re automatically being grateful and then you’re automatically happy » – Denny Morrison        

Accident controversy

Police did not charge either Morrison or the driver. Yet, the car flipped on it’s side from the accident, leading to initial police comment Morrison may have been speeding and a headline he calls ‘not my favourite article I’ve ever had written on me.’

Unable to remember the accident and having only media reports to go on Morrison spent a period trying to explain himself, wondering how badly he’d messed up. Local media later clarified their earlier reports. Speed Skating Canada also announced Morrison was only fined $155 for entering an intersection during a yellow light. Both passengers in the car were not hospitalized.

Now Morrison is working with his insurance company, to which he says multiple witnesses have reported he was travelling with the flow of traffic. He also says it could take years to sort out.

Considering retirement, past tense

The four-time Olympic medallist has skated multiple times since May 7 and most recently managed to tag on behind other world-class skaters, and hang in for a nine-minute skate at training speed. He then slept for ninety minutes.

The exertion is still exhausting. The basics are still excruciating. His current challenge is strengthening his vastus medialis oblique, a muscle near the knee. Although he was added to the long track team for the upcoming season, he may not race. The idea of exploding off the start line seems many steps away.  

But he’ll take those steps.

Denny Morrison walks on crutches on May 25th at the Calgary International Airport.

Denny Morrison walks on crutches on May 25th at the Calgary International Airport.

« Now I have to come back from this injury and I want to, and I’m motivated by this, » he says. Before the accident people would jokingly suggest retirement and Morrison would dismiss them with his love for skating but admits he thought, « In the back of my mind, yeah I guess they have a point, I could work toward the next thing. »

Denny Morrison at the flower ceremony for the 1500m in Sochi. He won bronze.

Denny Morrison at the flower ceremony for the 1500m in Sochi. He won bronze.

For the moment the next big thing is PyeongChang 2018, even if it’s a million steps off in the distance. The Olympic champion didn’t outright say he’ll ride a motorcycle again but did offer, « You can’t be limited by all your fears in life, you just have to be aware of them and aware of the risks and manage them. » Compared to speed skating the odds are almost as likely he’ll also return to his love of riding motorcycles.

And now he has one more story to tell.

« I’m going to remember that I was fighting for my life and all I had to do was ‘just breathe’ and now I’m in a race and yeah my legs are starting to burn…and I’m breathing hard but all I have to do is breathe, » said Morrison.