Blind Skier’s Olympic Push

Calgarian In Line For Berth At Vancouver Games; Triumph shows anything possible
By Vicki Hall,
Calgary HeraldDecember 23, 2009

Brian McKeever hopes Canadians look at the Paralympics through new eyes this morning upon reading of his latest brush with history in the Rocky Mountains.

With only 10 per cent vision, the legally blind Calgary native roared across a finish line he could not see Tuesday to win a 50-kilometre Nor-Am race on his home course at the Canmore Nordic Centre.

In doing so, the 30-year-old unofficially reached the qualifying standard for the 2010 Olympic cross-country ski team.

Once the team is formally announced, McKeever is expected to become the first winter athlete to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

“It’s important for people to know the Paralympics is as high as it gets,” McKeever said Tuesday, his legs cramping up after the race of his life.

“It’s the Olympic Games for people with physical disabilities and I hope people will realize through my story, the gap is not that big. Just because somebody has a disability doesn’t mean they are not training hard or aren’t extremely fit.

“I think the Paralympics is a great product. We have something worth watching and I hope my story will bring more attention to that,” he added.

McKeever also hopes his story makes people realize most of their limitations in life are self-imposed.

Sure, some folks deemed his goal — of testing himself against the world’s best in Vancouver in both Paralympic and able-bodied events — pure fantasy.

“People hear some blind guy is trying to make it to the Olympics, and they think that’s crazy,” McKeever said. “I understand.”

And sure, he knew in the back of his mind that prior to Tuesday that he had never won an elite race against able-bodied competitors.

His previous personal best of second or third would not be enough to seal up an Olympic spot.

“I had yet to put down a win,” he said. “Maybe that was a limitation in my head. I hope by being able to break out of that, that will change my outlook .”

At the age of 19, McKeever’s world outlook changed — not by choice — when his vision began to cloud. A rising star on the Canadian junior cross-country ski team, he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease.

The genetic disorder had robbed his dad, William, and aunt of most of their vision as children. So McKeever knew a life of blurriness awaited him.

Relying only on peripheral vision, how could he ever follow the trail blazed by big brother Robin, a cross-country skier for Canada at the 1998 Winter Games?

“It’s kind of interesting,” McKeever said. “That goal never went away, even though I started skiing on the para-nordic side.

“It was always in the back of my mind.”

With brother Robin serving as his guide, McKeever won seven Paralympic medals, including four gold.

Upon return from Turin, McKeever decided to shoot for a different target.

“I’ve been competitive with these national team guys my whole life,” he said. “These guys are going to world cups. These guys are going to world championships. They’ve qualified for the Olympics. Why not me?”

In 2007, McKeever finished 21st in an able-bodied men’s 15-kilometre skate-ski race at the world championships. But his Olympic quest came down to the race Tuesday, and he could barely choke down his pre-race meal of a cheese omelette and cinnamon raisin bagel due to his jangled nerves.

On the first lap, brother Robin led the pack — racing for the chance to qualify for his second Olympics — followed by Brian.

“Part of the reason I was skiing well, was because he was skiing well,” Brian said. “A happy athlete is a successful athlete. So find whatever makes you happy and hold on to that for the race.”

Eventually, Robin dropped back and Dan Roycroft, of Huntsville, Ont., roared out in front.

“When the light is flat — and it was a bit flat today — that makes it harder to see,” McKeever said. “When I was skiing with Dan, he was pointing out the ice patches to me as he went around the corner He was like, ‘Icy, icy, icy.’ He helped show me how to get around.”

From there, Brian took over. With legs burning, he crossed the finish line in a time of 2:21.08 — more than a minute before the nearest competitor, Brent McMurtry, of Calgary.

Robin dropped back to eighth.

“That,” McKeever said. “was the hardest part of the day for me.”

Five athletes — all in summer sports — have competed in the Paralympics and Olympics: South African swimmer Natalie du Toit (amputee), American runner Marla Runyan (visually impaired), Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka (born without right hand and forearm), Italian archer Paola Fantato (polio) and New Zealand archer Neroli Susan Fairhall (paraplegic).

Cross Country Canada is expected to name its Olympic team in January.

“I’m not going to lose any more sleep,” McKeever said. “I’m at ease with what I’ve done. It’s out of my hands. If I’m selected, I’m going to be super-pumped. It’s a dream come true — if it happens.”

His teammate, Drew Goldsack, fully expected it to happen all along.

“To me, it’s no surprise that he’s going to get a spot on the Olympic team,” Goldsack said. “You forget after a while that he has vision problems.

“He’s just one of the guys.”

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