Brian McKeever's path from set-backs to Paralympic glory
Jonathan Forani, CTVNews.ca Staff
Published Monday, March 12, 2018 10:37PM EDT
Last Updated Monday, March 12, 2018 11:09PM EDT
Cross-country skier Brian McKeever might be riding high this week as the most-decorated Paralympian ever, but his ride to the top hasn’t always been smooth.
On home turf, he was tapped to compete in both the Paralympic and Olympic Games in 2010, but before he could become the first athlete ever to do both in the same year, he was replaced by another skier in the men’s 50-kilometre race. The reversal crushed his spirits.
But on Monday, the 38-year-old from Canmore, Alta., won his 11th Paralympic gold medal -- and his 14th overall -- in the 20-kilometre event at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games. With that he has become the most decorated Canadian Paralympian ever. It’s been a record-breaking few days for McKeever, who also carried the Canadian flag during the Games opening ceremonies on Friday. He passed the medal hauls of the late Lana Spreeman, an alpine skier who captured 13 Paralympic medals, and summer Paralympians wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc and swimmers Michael Edgson and Timothy McIsaac, all who have 10 gold medals each.
The Paralympian is remaining humble about the milestones. “We’re not out to chase records or do any of that stuff. We’re just doing a job and enjoying what we do,” he told CTV News. “I get to travel the world with my friends and my teammates. And skiing for a living is pretty special.”
The challenges he has faced along the way have only motivated McKeever to push himself more. He suffers from Stargadt disease, a condition he shares with his father -- and one of his personal idols, U.S. distance runner Marla Runyan -- that causes progressive damage to the centre of the retina, resulting in loss of central vision. It began for McKeever at the age of 19. Over the years, he has been involved as a speaker with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, an institution that has done much for his family, including his father. “They helped him continue on with his job as a school teacher even though he had 5 per cent vision,” he said in 2014.
Since the disease targets the central vision, McKeever has retained his peripheral vision and likes to use an especially Canadian analogy to explain what it’s like: “I see the donut, but I don’t see the Timbit.”
When he races, he has sighted guides who can see the Timbit. On Monday, McKeever crossed the finish line in 46 minutes 2.4 seconds with guides Graham Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy.
“They did an awesome job today,” McKeever told The Canadian Press. “It was super windy out there, so to be able to tuck in behind these big boys is important for me to get that rest a bit. They pushed hard, they skied really well, and they took care of me the whole way.”
McKeever has used a two-guide tactic since the Sochi Games in 2014 when Erik Carleton took over for McKeever’s brother, Robin McKeever, who acted as his sighted guide for many competitions. The guides, who lead the impaired athlete through the course, are as much a part of the Games and are also awarded medals. McKeever won gold with his brother Robin at the 2010 Paralympic Games.
Skiing is a major part of the McKeever family name. His nephew Xavier McKeever is a cross-country skier too and spoke with CTV from Thunder Bay this week where he is competing in the Cross Country Canada national championship.
“People idolize him,” said Xavier about his uncle. “I’ve just heard countless stories of how they just want to follow in Brian’s footsteps and make it to that top level.”
Now that he’s made it to that top level, this could be it for McKeever. Pyeongchang may be his last Paralympic Games, but his medal count could still grow this week. He’s set to compete Wednesday in the 1.5-kilometre sprint race.
A good day at the Paralympics calls for a glass of wine... pic.twitter.com/sOTViEsn6P— Brian McKeever (@brianmckeever) March 12, 2018
With files from CTV’s Alberta Bureau Chief Janet Dirks