NEWS
04/26/2016 16:03 EDT | Updated 04/27/2017 01:12 EDT

Canadian speedskating star Denny Morrison returns home after suffering a stroke

CALGARY — The stubbornness of his girlfriend and a horse show may have saved Denny Morrison's life.

The four-time Olympic medallist in speedskating flew home to Calgary from Salt Lake City on Tuesday three days after Morrison suffered a stroke in Utah.

Morrison wanted rest and time to consult with doctors before speaking to the media.

His girlfriend and Canadian teammate Josie Spence, who saw Morrison was ailing and insisted he go to hospital in Salt Lake, said they were both relieved to be home.

"He's sleeping lots, but the doctors and the whole speedskating team have been really helpful towards him," Spence told The Canadian Press. "They know that this stage for him is to get as much rest and recovery as he can and Denny knows that as well."

The couple were heading back to Canada after 25 days mountain biking the 1,200-kilometre Arizona Trail from the Mexico to Utah borders. They planned to stop in Salt Lake City to see the horse show Cavalia on Saturday.

Morrison awoke from a nap when they got out of the car.  Spence noticed Morrison was slurring his speech and struggled to put his sunglasses on with his left hand.

Spence, a certified lifeguard trained in first aid, recognized this was more than post-nap grogginess.

"Denny had just wanted to get back to Canada," she said. "We were both really tired from doing that long trip. He was 'I just want to get back home.'"

Spence insisted he get medical treatment. His symptoms worsened upon arrival at hospital.

"They decided to transfer him over to another hospital and they would do a procedure on him there," she recalled. "By the time he was in the ambulance, his symptoms got a lot better, so they decided not to go forward with (surgery)."

Scans confirmed a brain blood clot and carotid artery dissection. Morrison didn't require surgery or blood thinners, but the 30-year-old from Fort St. John, B.C., spent three nights in hospital.

Spence, a 22-year-old from Kamloops, B.C., might not have known the seriousness of Morrison's condition if they had kept driving and not stopped in Salt Lake to see the horses.

"I'm so thankful we were able to get out of the car and see the weakness in his left side," she said. "Just sitting in the car, you don't really see that."

Doctors told her the clot was not new. What is most frightening to Spence was the chance it could have happened while they were cycling in the backcountry far from help.

"I was really scared and just thinking about us being on that trip for 800 miles and pretty much all of it in remote areas where there is no service," Spence said. "I'm so thankful it happened not on the trip."

A young, fit athlete suffering a stroke is a head-scratcher because of the condition's association with aging and ill health.

But Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Kris Letang had a stroke in 2014 at the age of 26. Tests determined Letang had a small hole in the wall of his heart. He returned to play in the NHL after a 10-week break.

Morrison didn't fall or hit his head on the bike trip in Arizona, Spence said. Morrison's stroke came less than a year after a near-fatal motorcycle accident in Calgary.

Along with a broken right leg, Morrison sustained a concussion, a punctured lung, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, bruised liver and kidneys and a small fracture in a bone near his spine when his motorcycle struck a left-turning car May 7 in Calgary.

He didn't compete in any World Cups in 2015-16, but raced for the first time since the accident March 18 at a Canada Cup in Calgary.

Morrison is the star of Canada’s long-track team, having won its two medals — a silver and a bronze — at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He's accustomed to comebacks. He broke his left fibula while skiing just 14 months prior to those Games.

Morrison, Lucas Makowsky and Mathieu Giroux won team pursuit gold at the 2010 Games and Morrison also won a pursuit silver in 2006.

Morrison intends to compete in a fourth Olympic Games in 2018.

"It is so inspiring to see how patient he has been through everything and how determined he still is every day, no matter what setback he has, to get back on the ice to get racing again," Spence said.