The real olympic hero

How Gilmore Junio taught his veteran teammate, and the country, the true meaning of sacrifice

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2014

How Gilmore Junio taught his veteran teammate, and the country, the true meaning of sacrificeThis article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2014

Speed skaters Denny Morrison and Gilmore Junio have been working on this handshake they use after a good training session, each time they see each other in the athletes’ village here in Sochi, or when there’s an Olympic medal to celebrate. Especially that. “It’s a high-five, fist-pump combo,” says Morrison, adopting a professorial tone as they demonstrate. “We’re going to patent it,” says Junio. Morrison suggests they call it the Morr-io. Gilmore figures it’s time for top billing. Maybe a Gil-Morr?

They’re flopped in the stands at the Adler Arena after Morrison skated to a bronze finish in the 1,500-m, his second individual medal in three days. The cavernous building, where the cheers were ear-bleed loud less than two hours ago, is silent but for the drone of an ice-dressing machine and the exultations of a broadcaster reliving the closest 1,500-m race in Olympic history. The men have much catching up to do. It’s been a crazy few days for both.

Junio, of course, famously ceded his right to race in the 1,000-m long-track skate on Feb. 12, so 28-year-old Morrison, the alternate, could take his place. The 1,000 is Morrison’s specialty but he’d crashed during the Olympic trials. The 23-year-old Junio, primarily a 500-m sprint specialist, qualified for the 1,000; Morrison did not. Morrison made the most of his reprieve. He skated the race of his life and won a silver medal. That’s the bones of the story, but it’s about so much more than a shiny prize swinging on the end of a ribbon.

Canadians tune in to long-track speed skating every fourth year of the Olympic cycle. They don’t know the nuances of the sport the way the Dutch do. They don’t know the names of most skaters on the Canadian team.

But judging by the outpouring of emotion in recent days, they know intuitively this is about something bigger than who crosses the line first, or who will carry the Canadian flag out of Sochi.

It’s about pain, disappointment and loss, and the lengths exceptional people will go to overcome these obstacles. It’s about friendship, loyalty, sacrifice. It’s about commitment to the high ideals we all profess to admire, even if we sometimes fall short ourselves—or fail to see before us, in the grind and compromise of daily life, the nuggets of opportunity we all have to do good things.

This is about a veteran athlete who needed to grow up; and an impressionable rookie, wise beyond his years. This is the golden moment of a silver medal.

As much as Denny Morrison sees himself a team player, the quest for an individual medal was his holy grail. He earned silver as part of the team pursuit at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, but even the gold the Canadian pursuit team won in Vancouver four years later left him unsatisfied. “It’s a whole different thing when you come to the Olympics,” his father, Dennis, says of his son. “I don’t know what it is, if it’s the pressure of the expectations, or whatever.”

He emerged from Vancouver in a funk. At the end of that season, the guy from the northeastern B.C. resource town of Fort St. John, who’d skated since age four, played hooky from training. He took much of the next spring and summer off to travel and reflect, cutting all but essential communication with his coaches. When he resumed training, he was more than two months behind, and the results showed in a mediocre season. After Vancouver, there were a spate of retirements among the greats of speed skating, including Clara Hughes, Kristina Groves and Jeremy Wotherspoon. Morrison found himself, at 25, a senior member of the national team. He knew his lack of professionalism in the 2011 season wasn’t something younger teammates should emulate. He told his coaches not to use him as an example, but they wouldn’t let him off the hook. “They’re still going to look at you, no matter what you’re doing; you won a gold medal,” they said. “So you’ve kind of got to get your act together.”

It was time to lead by example. “I had to mature in some ways pretty quickly,” he says, “and take on that role, whether I wanted it or not.” It helped that the poor results of 2011 were strangely motivating. He’d done everything he could, and more, in Vancouver and fell short. He’d done the minimum in 2011, and it showed. “To me, it boiled down to finding some balance.” He returned recharged in 2012. He was leading in World Cup points in the 1,000-m, until disaster struck while cross-country skiing on a family Christmas break in Fernie, B.C. There was a log hidden under powder snow. His skis went under it, he flew over it. “It was ugly.” An X-ray confirmed a broken left leg, and the end of his season. What it couldn’t predict were the cascade of complications to follow: a sprained ankle, fascia, back and hip problems.

Gino Junio and his wife, Julie, moved to Canada from the Philippines in the 1970s. A machine shop in Winnipeg had offered him a job. “It was the first opportunity I had to go abroad and to try to build a better life, so I took it,” says Gino. They discovered the better life came with a significant amount of cold, but they persevered. They moved to Calgary. They started a family: Marjorie, Gerry and Gilmore, the youngest.

Marjorie was into music, the boys were mad for hockey. Gino and Julie did their best to support their interests—as long as academics came first. “We have always emphasized family, the value of education and hard work to our children,” says Gino, who recently retired as manager of a tool-and-die operation. Family vacations were often tied to hockey or power-skating camps. Even in summer, there was no escaping ice.

Gilmore says Gerry was the better hockey player, but both were limited by their slight builds and short stature. Gilmore switched to short-track skating in his teens. He switched to long track in 2009, after a frightening crash left him with two fractured vertebrae. His parents briefly yanked him from the sport when his Grade 12 marks faltered. “As crazy as it sounds, I missed going around in circles and being around the rink with my friends,” Gilmore says. By 2010, he was named Alberta’s male junior athlete of the year. That summer, he made the national development team; his quest to compete in Sochi had begun.

The explosive speed of short track translated well to the long-track 500-m sprints. Junio has won a gold and silver in World Cup events, and Morrison, seeking to improve his starts, took notice. He credits Junio for his new speed off the line. Junio credits Morrison for just about everything. “The thing about Denny is his drive to compete and his drive to win,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who hates losing at anything maybe more than Denny.”

When Morrison crashed during the 1,000-m Olympic trials last month and failed to qualify in a re-skate shortly after, Junio immediately told teammate Danielle Wotherspoon he’d cede his spot to Morrison. Shocked, she told him to keep that thought to himself. “To represent Canada at the Olympics is a huge privilege and honour,” he says.

He took her advice, though one of his coaches knew of his intentions. The coach approached him after Junio’s 10th-place finish in the 500-m: “I have a tough question to ask,” he began. The decision on whether to step aside was left entirely to him, he says. “I flashed back to that moment in trials, and that made the decision easier because the seed had already been planted.”

His greatest concern, remarkably, was whether Morrison was mentally prepared; he didn’t want to set up his friend to fail again. He sent a text to Morrison: “Are you ready for the 1,000, yay or nay?” The answer, once Morrison determined it wasn’t a cruel joke, was, to paraphrase: Hell, yes! He jumped on a bike in the athletes’ village to race over to hear the news first-hand. Gilmore had already taken a deep breath and texted his sister to tell his parents he wouldn’t be racing. With 12 friends and family members in Sochi to see Gilmore in two races, they were in shock. “Yes, we were disappointed. We know how hard Gil, like every other Team Canada athlete, had worked to earn a spot,” says Gino. “We all knew that Denny deserved to race, but it was difficult to absorb in such a short time why it had to be Gil to give up his spot.”

For Denny, and his parents, Carol and Dennis, who were at Canada House, it was a near-miraculous reversal of fortune. “We were half laughing, half crying, we were so excited. But,” Carol asked, “was this really okay with Gilmore?” Yes, he assured them. “We hugged,” says Carol. “We all had tears in our eyes.”

The Morrison who raced here was indeed ready. He was forged in the disappointment of Vancouver and the frustration of a broken leg. He used the downtime to catch up on his sleep, to improve his diet, to adjust his attitude. “He said to us, ‘If I get any negative thoughts, I will quickly turn them around,’ ” says Carol. “And I think it worked.”

As for Junio, his parents can only marvel at the maturity and generosity that led to his decision. “We always tell our children that there are consequences in every decision they make, but if they fully consider those consequences, and make up their mind, we will support them,” says Gino. “In this case, Gil’s decision turned out to be the best one, and we are very proud of him.”

Who knows the chemistry of friendship? For all the difference in their backgrounds and ages, Morrison and Junio have much in common. Both have supportive parents, both fought back from potentially career-ending injuries, and both have this: an influential older brother. For Morrison, it was Jay, also a speed skater and a former fellow national team member. “He was always trying to keep up to Jay,” says their father, Dennis. “When he got as big as Jay, he passed him.” For Junio, it was Gerry. “I still say my brother is one of the best athletes I’ve met,” says Gilmore. “I was trying to jump higher, run faster than him. Chasing him through my childhood definitely led to why I turned out the way I am.”

To see Morrison and Junio goofing around together in the empty skating oval, it’s clear this friendship is genuine, not some public relations exercise to generate a feel-good story. A single thought comes to mind: They are brothers.

It was Morrison, after his silver-medal skate, who began the campaign to name Junio the Canadian flag-bearer, an idea that has gained steam. Junio is a little embarrassed and a little proud at the reaction to a race he never skated. Seriously, he says, there are many worthy candidates. And there are: Alex Bilodeau, successfully defending his mogul championship. Charles Hamelin adding another short-track gold to his collection. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s silver-medal ice dance. Maybe it’s enough that the athlete and the flag represents success on the field of play. But if the flag also represents the larger Canadian story, then there’s much to be said for celebrating a young man who gave up an Olympic performance to honour a friend, a team and the adopted country of his parents.

Or why not a classic compromise: two Olympians? Morrison with his medals and Junio, the ultimate team player? Morr-io for flag-bearer. Or is it Gil-Morr? Plenty of Canadians would give a high-five, fist-pump combo for that.

Maclean's March 3, 2014