Brian McKeever, first Winter Olympic / Paralympic athlete, sees his dream come true

Brian McKeever, first Winter Olympic / Paralympic athlete, sees his dream come true

Posted on Jun.21, 2010, by , under Inspirational Stories

Brian McKeever never set out to be a trailblazer for elite athletes with a disability. The legally blind cross-country skier from Canmore, Alta., just wanted to push the limits of his own ability.

But when he tackles an Olympic cross-country trail in the Callaghan Valley in February against the world’s best endurance athletes, the man with just 10 per cent vision — all of it peripheral — will be pushing a clear vision of athletic excellence that is blind to limitation.

McKeever, 30, was officially named to Canada’s 2010 cross-country team on Friday, a selection that became a near certainty when he won a 50-kilometre Olympic trials NorAm race at Canmore in December, beating many of the top able-bodied racers in North America.

The four-time gold medallist from the 2002 and 2006 Paralympics will become the first winter-sport athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

“Really, it was more a personal goal of trying to achieve my best level,” he said of the drive to earn an Olympic berth.

“Being the first to do both Winter Games, if that captures people’s imagination as far as what the dream can turn into, if it shows what Paralympians are capable of doing, that they’re training at the same level as able-bodied athletes, then that’s fine.”

McKeever was one of 11 skiers named to the 2010 team, including 2006 Olympic gold medallist Chandra Crawford of Canmore, who trained with the para-nordic athlete through the fall and watched him struggle through injury to find his form.

“I feel like I’ve had a lot of things to get through to get here,” Crawford told the Calgary Herald. “It’s been hard to make the team, hard to perform to the ability I have, but with Brian around, I maintain a high level of inspiration. It’s so amazing.”

McKeever says it’s important the public understand how committed Paralympians are as athletes.

“There’s a lot of motivation for what they do. You hear such great stories of how sport has changed their lives, of how it’s a big part of what they do. These are people who are competing for the right reasons.”

Once a promising member of Canada’s junior national team, McKeever’s vision began to cloud in his late teens. He was diagnosed at 19 with Stargardt’s disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration that affects central vision. He kept skiing, but in two years time, he was legally blind.

He turned to para-nordic skiing, with his brother Robin, a 1998 Olympian, acting as his on-course guide. The McKeevers became a dominant tandem internationally, but as Brian continued to train and compete with national able-bodied athletes, he couldn’t let go of his Olympic dream.

He would, off course, have to do it without Robin. With the ability to make out blurry shapes in front of him, he’ll often slide in behind other competitors in able-bodied races. To further compensate, he carefully inspects courses before races, committing sections and particularly dangerous high-speed corners to memory.

Three years ago, he showed his dream was within reach by finishing 21st in a field of 120 in the men’s 15-kilometre skate race at the world championships in Japan.

He’ll almost certainly race the 50K on the final day of the Olympics. He also hopes to get into a 15K early in the Games.

“I want to go in as prepared as I can, be in the best shape of my life and have the best race I can. If I do that, then it doesn’t matter what place I come. I believe that on my best day I’m as competitive as any of our best guys. Time will tell, but there’s a great belief within our team that we’re going to have a breakthrough from somebody.”

McKeever intends to compete in all five Paralympic events for the visually impaired — 5K, 10K and 20K cross-country races and 7.5K and 12.5K biathlon.

He hasn’t shot well at previous Paralympics. When he missed seven of 15 targets in the 7.5K at Turin, costing him three minutes in penalty loops and forcing him to settle for bronze, Robin cracked: “I’m glad it wasn’t me, I would have turned the gun on myself.” But Brian says his shooting has been “reasonably good” lately.

With his focus on securing the Olympic berth, McKeever hasn’t competed in any para-nordic World Cups this season, but doesn’t see it as a problem.

“I think everybody knows what Robin and I do for preparation, skiing most able-bodied racing. And who knows, maybe it creates a little bit more of a mystique as to what our shape is. It could work to our advantage.”

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