Before 23-year-old Gilmore Junio raced in the first Olympic event of his young career—before he was celebrated for the race he did not skate—he wanted it known he would dedicate his performance at the speed skating oval at the Sochi Winter Games to the people of the Philippines, to the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan.
Haiyan ripped through the country last November, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Although Junio was born and raised in Calgary, his parents emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s. He knew people in his parents’ homeland would track his progress in Russia, for it’s a rarity for a person of Filipino origin to participate in the Winter Games.
He wanted them to know he stood with them and felt their pain. “I’m glad they can look forward to my participation and cheer up,” he said back in January.
Well, things didn’t go as planned. Although he was a medal contender in the 500m Monday, he finished tenth, respectable but hardly the stuff of his dreams. It was later that night that he swallowed his disappointment and did something quite amazing. Something “unprecedented,” says his friend and teammate Denny Morrison.
The program director for Speed Skating Canada asked Junio if he’d consider giving up his second event, the 1,000-m race that ran Wednesday, so that Morrison could take his place. Junio is a sprinter of great promise, better suited to 500 metres. Morrison is a specialist in the longer events, but his skate clipped his heel during the Olympic selection trials late last year, and he slid across the finish line in fifth place. Junio qualified for the 1,000-m, Morrison did not.
The decision whether to step aside was left entirely to Junio. Imagine the import of that request. He’d spent four years on the national team gutting out a chance to make the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi; now he was asked to consider walking away from an Olympic race, to risk disappointing his parents, who flown to Russia to watch him race.
Junio told his family his decision Monday night, then he picked up the cell phone the Canadian Olympic team had provided athletes and he texted this to his friend Denny Morrison: “Are you ready for the 1,000m, yay or nay?”
Morrison looked at his phone, and the strange Russian phone number, and he read the message and wondered if it was a cruel joke: “Is someone pulling my leg here, because this isn’t funny if you’re screwing with me.”
But it was no joke. Morrison grabbed his bicycle and raced from the Athletes Village across the Olympic compound to Canada House where Junio was visiting with his parents. Morrison’s family was there too. And as the families got to know each other, the two athletes talked. And because they are guys it would appear there was not a lot of emoting.
As Morrison recalls it, the conversation went like this: “I just said thanks so much man, I’m going to make the most of this, this is a huge opportunity, I hope to make you proud. And he said, ‘Dude, just go kill it, I know you’re going to have a good one.’ ”
And, of course, Morrison did just that. How could he not? He won the individual medal that had eluded him in two previous Olympics—a silver to add to the gold he won in Vancouver as part of Canada’s team pursuit. He finished the 1,000 in 1:08.43, just four one hundredths of a second behind Stefan Groothuis of the Netherlands.
It was a beautiful thing to see. He jumped and fist-pumped on the podium during the flower presentation ceremony in the centre of the Olympic Oval. He rushed to the stands for a passionate kiss with his girlfriend, Nicole Gagnon, and for a group hug with his parents.
Junio was in the stands, too, nervous as hell before the event, watching with his parents the race they had flown to Russia to see him skate. “I was hoping the best for one of the best teammates and one of my best friends in the past four years,” Junio said. “And he made good on it.”
It’s no exaggeration to say a piece of that medal belongs to Junio, though he would not say it that way. Not only did he let Morrison race in his place, but he has taught Morrison how to use the explosive starts of a sprinter to gain an edge in the longer distances. “I’ve literally been trying to get his technique in my opener,” Morrison said. In Wednesday’s race he credits Junio’s guidance for his 16.6-second start off the line, “my fastest opener in six years.”
Junio grew up playing minor hockey in Calgary. He switched disciplines as a 13-year-old when the realization hit that he was going to be too small to take the sport to a higher level. But he learned a lesson in hockey that served him well. “It’s all about the team,” he said. “You put the team first before yourself.”
There is talk now of a campaign to make Gilmore Junio, Olympian, the Canadian flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. If so, it would be an unprecedented break with tradition—bestowing that honour on a man for a race he did not skate.
And why not?
The race he did not skate delivered a silver medal for Canada.
The race he did not skate will live in Olympic lore.
A month ago he hoped his Olympic experience might be a small act of inspiration to a storm-battered nation. He fulfilled that promise and exceeded it, for a race he did not skate. His great gift was not in the winning, as he might have hoped, but in the letting go.