It took another team effort to get Canada’s Brian McKeever his latest gold medal.
Seven days after swapping guide Erik Carleton for alternate Graham Nishikawa midway through his victory in the men’s 20-kilometre race, the visually impaired cross-country ski legend pulled the same manoeuvre to help win Sunday’s 10-kilometre event and pick up his third gold at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games.
With windy conditions starting to wear on Carleton, Nishikawa entered the race with about three kilometres to go to help seal the 10th gold medal of McKeever’s storied career.
The 34-year-old from Canmore, Alta., was under the weather when he first got to Russia and wasn’t at 100 per cent before Sunday’s competition, which marked his 13th Paralympic podium finish.
“It was all on the guides today. They did such a great job with all the headwind,” said McKeever. “There was so much wind out there today that just to be tucked in, I saved a lot of energy. By the time we got to the last lap there was still a little bit of gas left, just enough to get by.”
McKeever, who also swept the individual cross-country ski events at the Vancouver Paralympics four years ago, was still coughing after the race but said he was used to competing under less-than-ideal circumstances.
“We’re professionals. It’s what we do. We’re paid to do this and there’s not a lot about sport that is comfortable. It just adds another little factor of discomfort,” said McKeever. “You go out and pound it out. All we can do is lay down the best race we can and hope that it’s enough and in the end it was enough, but it certainly could have gone either way at any time out there.”
McKeever finished Sunday’s race in a time of 23 minutes 18.1 seconds, just 8.1 seconds ahead of Russia’s Stanislav Chokhlaev.
France’s Thomas Clarion won bronze after clocking in at 24:14.9.
Later Sunday, 42-year-old Chris Klebl of Canmore surprised the field with a stunning victory in the men’s 10-kilometre sitting race for his first-ever Paralympic medal to bring Canada’s overall count to 16, including seven gold.
Robin McKeever, the team’s coach and Brian McKeever’s brother and former guide, decided to switch Nishikawa in for Carleton after seeing that the Canadians were trailing at the race’s midway point.
“It was a lot windier today than it has been all week. Guiding in the wind is so difficult,” said Robin McKeever. “Having done this for 10 years of guiding with Brian up until 2010, I know what days like today are and it’s hard. My hat’s off to both off those guys. You’re just a freaking tow truck, and you have to be a tow truck towing a Ferrari.
“The guy in front going into the headwind has to be sprinting like it’s a one-kilometre race, but you’ve got to hold on for 10.”
Carleton and Nishikawa were also battling colds and knew that it would take an extra effort to get Brian McKeever across the finish line first.
“That was a gutsy performance,” said Nishikawa, a 30-year-old from Whitehorse. “This morning in the wax room we were like ‘Uh oh this is going to be a close day.’ He’s raced so much this week. I think today shows how strong a competitor he is.
“He gutted it out. Erik started and did a great job and I just had to jump in and try to motivate him to get there.”
McKeever, who also won the one-kilometre sprint with Nishikawa by coming from behind after falling early in the race, said his Sochi medals will hold special meaning.
“These ones were great. It was such a team effort. Erik and I have been working for this for four years, and Graham coming in as well for the last year and a half, we’re super tight.”
Added Carleton: “It’s amazing to be part of the team. It feels like we got the job done here. It’s really rewarding for me. That’s what I came here to do.”
Robin McKeever, who was forced to retire and turn to coaching after suffering a knee injury, credited both guides and brother Brian with getting the job done.
“Two races that were just a serious team effort between those three guys,” he said. “Just the orchestration of it all — I’m pretty satisfied.”