Speed skater Denny Morrison was recuperating from a motorcycle race when he suffered a stroke. His recovery is one of incredible determination and ends with him representing Canada in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Denny Morrison says he’s lucky his then girlfriend and teammate, Josie (Spence), was hiking with him in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It was Josie who recognized that Denny, then 30, was having a stroke.
As they began the drive home to Calgary, it was clear that Denny wasn’t himself, says Josie. The four-time Olympian could effortlessly balance on a 1-millimetre wide blade while skating at 60 kilometres an hour. But when the couple stopped at a rest stop, Denny could barely keep his flip-flop on his foot. Soon, he was slurring his words.
Alarmed, Josie messaged the medical manager of the Canadian speed skating team. He told her Denny needed to get to a hospital immediately.
More than a year since that terrifying day, which came after another devastating setback when Denny was in a motorcycle crash, he is not only on the road to recovery; he has qualified once again to represent Canada at the Winter Olympics. Josie too is skating for Canada.
As the couple prepared for the Olympics in South Korea, they sat down with Heart & Stroke to reflect on stroke and recovery, how the experience has strengthened their relationship and the moments they want to create together.
What’s changed in your relationship since the stroke?
Denny: We’ve grown closer since then. We’re married now!
Josie: We’ve overcome so many challenges together. To reach such depths and lows in our relationship and still come out caring and loving each other… it was like we were meant to be together through it.
Is there a moment that sticks out for you?
Denny: When I was having a stroke, Josie held my hand and told me that everything was going to be okay. She was right. And it’s for that reason that I describe Josie as my guardian angel.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about grit and your competitive spirit. How important was that to your recovery?
Denny: In the hospital, I said to Josie, “This is just one more obstacle on the way to the 2018 Korea Winter Olympics.” I didn’t really know what a stroke was at the time. The actual recovery process was a lot harder.
Josie, did you see that mindset in action during Denny’s recovery?
Josie: Yeah. You could totally tell Denny was an elite athlete in that hospital. Any test he had to pass, he would try his hardest and keep practicing until he got it right. There was one test where he had to touch his nose and then touch the nurse’s finger. As soon as the nurse left, Denny was like, “Got to get better at this. Let’s do it.” So I would practice with him. You could see the determination in him just wanting to get better right off the start.
What have been the most challenging parts of your recovery?
Denny: Physically, it took me a long time to regain the fine muscle control and confidence in my left leg that I need to skate well again. Being compassionate with myself is also a challenge. It’s something that I’m still working on. As an athlete, I’ve always been critical of myself; I’m always striving to reach perfection. Now, when I mispronounce words, fail a coordination test, forget information or lose my train of thought… it’s immensely frustrating. I see it as one huge issue that I must find a way to improve.
What’s kept you motivated since your stroke?
Denny: For me, speed skating had always been about winning medals and achieving personal success. Since my stroke, I’ve met other stroke survivors and seen how gritty they are, how hard they’ve worked to get their normal life back. These people are working hard to not miss moments in their lives. How can I not work as hard?
I’m thankful to be back racing. But I’ve also come to appreciate the moments I would have missed in my life in general — my marriage to Josie being the highlight. It’s other stroke survivors who have inspired me to get back to doing what I do, and not miss any of these moments. For that I thank them.