Morrison had appreciation for life long before sniper attack
Injuries and comebacks are part and parcel of athletes’ careers.
In a way, comebacks are the mark of true athletes, people who have the ability to overcome injury and pain, who cope with doubt and anxiety and put themselves back into the competition spotlight.
Twenty days after he was shot by a sniper on Interstate 80, John Morrison, 27, of Olympic Valley, was competing in the first round of the annual Lord of the Boards competition, at Homewood. He finished third.
Morrison is the defending champion of the skier-, tele- and boarder-cross event, and going into the final round at Alpine Meadows on March 20, he is second overall and has an outside chance of retaining his title.
Before this winter, Morrison had managed to avoid career curtailing incidents.
The all-around slopes athlete was looking forward to a busy competition season, which was to start with the skier-cross event at the X-Games in January, followed by the defense of his Lord of the Boards title.
Then, at Thanksgiving, Morrison broke his collarbone.
“I thought I have six weeks to get over it and get ready for the X-Games,” he said.
With his recovery well on track, on Jan. 4 Morrison dropped his brother, Jim, at Reno airport and pointed his truck west on Interstate 80.
“I was returning home to finally go skiing,” he said, “and I ended up having another two weeks off.”
As Morrison drove by Mogul, he felt sudden pressure in his chest.
“I was looking at a bullet hole in the windshield and feeling the pressure in my chest and there was no denying it. I knew what had happened.”
Authorities said Morrison had been shot by Christopher Merritt, 20, of Mankato, Minn. Merritt had positioned himself under a guard rail on the side of I-80 and was allegedly sniping at vehicles coming towards him in the westbound lane.
“The bullet hit me in the middle right of my chest and went in about two inches, lodging in the lining of my lung,” said Morrison, “two millimeters short of killing me.”
But at that moment, Morrison was feeling very much alive and was cognizant of what he had to do next.
“I couldn’t believe that nothing was going on physically,” he said. Morrison drove to the next exit, Verdi, and “by a stroke of luck” the first building he came across was the fire station.
“I thought that at any moment I could pass out because I had this pressure in my chest, so I had a sense of urgency to get to hospital.
“Given the situation I believe I was extremely calm – but not that calm.”
Morrison was taken by ambulance to Washoe County Medical Center.
There, his first question to the doctor was “when can I get back on to skis?”
“I was wondering what was going to become of the remainder of the season,” he said.
The doctor responded that Morrison would be looking at four to six weeks recovery.
After two weeks, though, Morrison was given the all clear to start skiing again.
“They decided not to remove the bullet, saying it was in a safe place.
“I thought that unless the doctor said I couldn’t and shouldn’t be out there, I was going to compete.”
On Jan. 24, Morrison competed in the first Lord of the Boards event at Homewood, with the bullet still in his chest and with only four days alpine skiing and no time on his board or tele skis behind him.
“I held back a little,” he said. “I was nervous. But over the years I have learned to gain a competition focus, using skills and blocking out other thoughts to win.”
Shocking fellow competitors, Morrison finished third in the overall event and third in the tele-cross.
“I was extremely happy to come from a hospital bed and on to the victory podium,” he said. “It was something I expected mentally, but not physically. Your skills don’t go away when you’re injured.”
Morrison added that he had felt a lot of support from other competitors. “That’s the neat thing (about Lord of the Boards). Everyone looks out for each other.”
Morrison added a second overall placing at Sugar Bowl and went one better at Copper Mountain, Colo., winning the overall event, and improving his performances each outing.
He trails only Slovenian World Cup team member Janez Demsar of South Lake Tahoe in the chase for the overall Lord of the Boards honor.
And Morrison has maintained a unique record of success in the overall event.
He has never finished outside of the top three in the nine Lord events that he has entered since 1997.
This year, Morrison will finish, at worst, second overall.
He is approaching the final event at Alpine Meadows knowing that Demsar will have to make a huge mistake to not win the overall title.
“I will have to do very well,” Morrison said. “I would like to win the Alpine event, it’s home.”
Morrison attributed his speedy recovery in part to his love of the mountains and the outdoor lifestyle he enjoys, and also to his attitude towards life.
“I love to be in the mountains whether I’m free skiing at a resort or hiking back country or on a tour with (friends) Otto (Hub) or Glen (Poulsen).”
Morrison said he likes to think that he takes gets out and advantage of every day.
“People ask me if I have a greater appreciation for life (after the shooting), but I think I had a pretty good appreciation for life going into it.”
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