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After being denied his chance to compete in Whistler, B.C., three years ago, Canadian Paralympian Brian McKeever is training as hard as ever to earn another shot in Sochi, Russia, next year. (CHRIS BOLIN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
After being denied his chance to compete in Whistler, B.C., three years ago, Canadian Paralympian Brian McKeever is training as hard as ever to earn another shot in Sochi, Russia, next year. (CHRIS BOLIN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Allan Maki

Brian McKeever: bowed but unbroken Add to ...

For two hours every morning on the mountain roads near the Nordic Centre in Canmore, Alta., he roller-skis up hills and down. Then, he spends hours more lifting weights, building up his strength.

It is that time again; time for Brian McKeever to push himself to a goal that has broken his heart once already – a chance at becoming the first Paralympic cross-country skier to compete at a Winter Olympics.

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McKeever’s initial bid – “the dream of every athlete to compete at the highest level” – ended badly. Named to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic team with great fanfare, the visually-impaired Albertan trained with the able-bodied ski team but never got to race.

He could have been tabbed as one of Canada’s four entrants in the men’s 50-kilometre event – he had qualified for the team as a distance specialist – but the coaches opted to sit him out. It touched off a maelstrom of emotions and crushed McKeever.

At 34, he is willing to try it all over again for what is likely his last shot at the Olympics.

“You always want to go,” McKeever acknowledged without hesitation. “Even when I retire, I’ll watch the Olympic trials and wish I had another shot at it. You just want to be out there and race at that level. As we see again and again, it’s the moment of it. Anything can happen. It’s not always the best athlete who wins. It’s the best skier on the best skis with the best wax on the right conditions; it’s all those factors.

“That’s what keeps athletes dreaming big, whether they’re ranked [No.] 1 to 33.”

McKeever remains one of Canada’s top Paralympic athletes. In three Paralympic appearances, he has won a total of 10 medals, seven of them gold. Earlier this year, at the world Paralympic Nordic championships in Sweden, McKeever and his guide, Erik Carleton, twice won gold in a three-day span. It underlined the fact McKeever, good enough for the 2010 Olympic team, remains a genuine possibility for 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

But can it happen?

Cross Country Canada’s Olympic team has largely been determined. Seven racers – four men and three women – have already been selected based on their World Cup performances. It has been decided no more than 11 skiers will race in Sochi, a smaller number than went to Whistler, B.C.’s Callaghan Valley, mainly because 2010 was a home Games and a chance for emerging athletes to gain experience.

To fill out the Sochi roster, a Cross Country Canada Olympic selection committee will use trial races set for Jan. 8 to 12, 2014, in Canmore. The plan is to add a male and female sprinter along with two distance skiers.

“It’s exactly the same as we did it for the [2013] worlds,” said CCC high-performance director Tom Holland, who will chair the six-member Olympic selection committee. “Brian’s in the mix. The guy is fit. He’s doing excellent training. We’re being a lot more proactive [in explaining] how we do the selection.”

“We have open spots and trial races,” national team coach Justin Wadsworth added. “Brian has as good a chance as anyone.”

Cross Country Canada readily embraced McKeever and his story when it named him to the 2010 Olympic team. At 19, McKeever was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a degenerative eye disorder that robs central vision. Undaunted, he followed in the tracks of his older brother, Robin, a cross-country skier who had competed in the 1998 Olympics. The two became a prolific Paralympic tandem starting in 2002. (Robin is now head coach of Canada’s Para-Nordic World Cup team.)

Having McKeever compete in Whistler could have been a glorious topper, both for the athlete and his sport. But the coaches decided to stick with their lineup, prompting Canadian Para-Nordic coach Kaspar Wirz to tell reporters someone was at fault for “using Brian as a media darling, then dropping him like a hot potato.”

The social media even turned on the four able-bodied skiers since none of them offered their spot in the 50-km race. McKeever insisted then, and now, his teammates didn’t deserve any of the criticism.

“Those guys got steamrolled. In the end, we were all just victims of circumstance.” he said. “It’s not up to the athletes [to determine who makes the Olympic team and who competes]. Our job is to train and race.

“I know there’s a selection committee and that the trials are in early January. All I can do is have my best day at the trials. If I have my best race of the year, the best race of my life, and I still don’t make it, I will still have had the best race of my life.

“And I’ll be satisfied with that.”

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

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