Olympic champion Morris leaves no stone unturned in quest for more curling success
John Morris is already a legend of Canadian curling but, after winning gold in the first-ever Olympic mixed doubles tournament at PyeongChang 2018, the 41-year-old is far from finished in the sport he loves.
John Morris has pretty much done it all in curling. He has won the Brier (Canada’s biggest men’s contest in the sport, afforded near-religious significance), he has won the World Championships and, on home ice at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, he secured gold in front of an ecstatic Canadian crowd. He could easily have rested on his laurels, but Morris, a serving firefighter in Canmore, Alberta, is not built that way.
Instead, for PyeongChang 2018, he decided to give mixed doubles curling a try. Alongside Kaitlyn Lawes, he won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in the event, further cementing his place in the sport’s annals.
“I absolutely love playing mixed doubles,” Morris said. “I’ll probably play it longer than I play men’s curling. I enjoy it so much. It’s so engaging. I think it’s going to have a major influence on the future of curling and, in 2018, it made real strides.
“I love the fact it is such a fast-paced game, taking an hour and a half rather than three. It’s easily accessible because you don’t need four players. And that’s why you see probably 60 countries already playing it. It was awesome to be part of that first Olympic mixed doubles experience. It’s great that lots of different countries can win at it, too. In a lot of sports, you have the same countries winning over and again. But in mixed doubles, more countries have a chance.”
Morris and Lawes were a curling partnership made in heaven, defeating a talented Norway side in the semi-finals before crushing reigning world champions Switzerland 10-3 in the gold-medal match. “The mojo was really working,” he said. “I don’t really know why – Kaitlyn and I were born on the same day; maybe that’s it? But we were laser-focused. We made changes on the fly, we adapted, and she was wonderful to work with.”
A smaller team means more action, too. “Another reason that it’s great to play is that you have much more control over the outcome,” he said. “In traditional curling, you’re getting 25 per cent of the shots. In doubles, I was getting 60 per cent, playing three of every five shots. So you really affect the outcome of the game. Playing with a female partner, the dynamic is different, but we were so focused on our goal; nothing got in the way. Kaitlyn was fantastic.”
Morris has always been a curling innovator – and he is from a family of trailblazers, too. His great-grandfather and father both played the game at national level, and his dad, Earle Morris, invented the Stabilizer, a patented curling sliding device.
“We definitely had a curling family,” he said. “They didn’t push me into it – I played all kinds of sport – but I started curling from age five and I got good at it. What got me really hooked was going away playing games for the weekend, staying away with my friends. One time we won a Nintendo Gameboy, and that was it for me.
“My dad was a major influence, from a tactical, strategic and mechanics standpoint. He also taught me how to act. I had a temper when I was young and could get upset with my team-mates. I can still remember him saying, ‘If you continue to act that way, nobody will want to play with you’ – and that totally changed my attitude.
“But we’re a family from a military background, and that nose-to-the-ground work ethic is vital to be successful at sport. We all hated losing and wanted to win, no matter what we were playing. That catapulted me to the next level. Whenever I’d lose a game, I’d really try and figure out why, what I did wrong, and I’d really work on a certain weakness so it wouldn’t happen again. I refused to lose. That still burns strongly in me.”
Physical hard work was one way that Morris got to the top. A year before his Vancouver glory, he even wrote a book, Fit to Curl, about the subject. “If you go back 50 years, the average curler wasn’t much of an athlete,” Morris said. “It was a social game. But that changed when it was added to the Olympics in 1998 [having been off the programme since 1924]. They’re the pinnacle of sport, and you start looking for an edge.
“I knew I wanted to make it to the top of that podium, and there’s such a small margin of victory in curling; I thought fitness may be something that could help me. It was something lacking in the game. I decided to train harder and more sport-specifically.
“With the rise in the standard in the game, you don’t just need to be a fantastic curler; you also need to be a really good sweeper to win. You can burn 800 calories in a game, so if you’re not in good shape, you’re going to be in the dust. The book did really well, and we sold every copy we printed.”
In prime condition, winning gold in 2010 was an unbelievable experience for Morris. “I don’t think you can script a better experience in life than winning an Olympic gold medal on home soil,” he said. “Everyone is watching. It’s the best sporting event in the world. All your friends and family are there to celebrate – all the people you’ve been through ups and downs with.
“It was such a feeling of pride. And it was surreal, too. You have heroes, like the hockey player Sidney Crosby, and suddenly you’re playing ping pong with them at the Olympic Village. It was all very cool.”
PyeongChang, meanwhile, gave Morris a unique opportunity to discover a new culture. “It was just a great experience from start to finish,” he said. “I loved the place and the people. And, unlike most of my team-mates, I love kimchi.
“What was great was the fact that we won gold in the first week, so we had two weeks after that to enjoy and explore. I ended up going to a rainbow trout festival with my dad, because we are big fishermen.
“We went off to this little mountain town and there wasn’t another athlete there. It was just full of locals who didn’t speak English. We had the best time. We caught some trout and it was cooked absolutely beautifully for us in a cauldron. They didn’t know I’d just won a gold medal but we got treated so well.”
Morris is targeting a third career Olympic gold at Beijing 2022 but is unsure in which event. Either way, he feels like he is still on top form. “I don’t know what’s happening for Beijing yet,” he said. “I am playing mixed doubles with my original partner Rachel Homan, and I’m also still playing men’s team curling. You can’t play both at the Games, but either way I’d love to be in Beijing. I’m 41 and I’m going strong. I don’t feel like I’ve lost a step.
“I’ve got a young family and still work as a firefighter, but I’m lucky that my work is flexible, and I’ve been able to find a work, life and sport balance. Whatever happens, though, I’ll be involved in mixed doubles for a long time yet. I’m so happy and proud to have got involved with that first gold medal. I just want to popularise the sport even more. It is amazing how far it has come.”