Left lying in the snow as his rivals pulled away, it looked – for a moment anyway – as though Brian McKeever’s hopes were lost.
No big finish, no shot at the medal podium. No one would have complained had he kicked off his skis and begun planning for his final events at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics.
Of course, McKeever did nothing of the sort. Instead, he did the remarkable. He chased down the leaders in Wednesday’s cross-country sprint for the visually impaired, passed them on the final corner and crossed the finish line to earn his ninth career gold medal. This weekend, he could win his 10th.
He is Canada’s most-decorated Winter Paralympian – a resounding feat for a man who lost his eye sight as a young adult but refused to let go of his ambitions.
Consider all the 34-year-old Calgarian has been through during the past few years: He was selected for the Canadian Olympic cross-country ski team for the 2010 Vancouver Games, but never got to race. (It was a humbling experience that sparked much public debate.) McKeever had a second chance to qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics but failed to make the qualifying time.
Then, there have been injuries, a change in who would ski as his on-course guide. Even in Sochi, he had to scrap a race after catching a virus.
And yet there McKeever was Wednesday, on a sloppy course, scrambling to pick himself up after a Russian skier stepped on his pole just 200 metres into the race. That he recovered in such compelling fashion was very much in keeping with his life story.
“Rarely do things unfold like that in three minutes,” McKeever said after claiming his second gold in a three-day span. The first came Monday in the 20-kilometre race in which he employed both his guides, Erik Carleton and Graham Nishikawa, who each skied half the race. It was a nifty bit of strategy that kept McKeever ahead of his rivals.
Nishikawa was McKeever’s guide in the 1-km sprint and thought they were done after the fall.
“When I saw him go down, I immediately panicked and just thought, ‘Oh no. Not now,’” Nishikawa said. “It wasn’t until we got back up around the Russians and had the Swedes in sight that I felt a huge relief.”
McKeever is the first to admit he owes much of his success to friends and family. Although he knew his dad, Bill, had been blinded at 18 by Stargardt’s, a disease that robs a person of their central vision, McKeever figured he was in the clear at 19.
Brian wasn’t that lucky. His father sat him down and explained such was the hand he was dealt; the sooner he got over it, the quicker he could get on living with it. Watching his dad ride his bike around their Calgary neighbourhood was enough for Brian to ride, too.
McKeever’s older brother, Robin, was another source of inspiration. Robin cross-country skied and was good enough to compete for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. He later switched to the Paralympics as Brian’s guide, the skier who slides ahead and shouts instructions.
Together, the McKeevers won quite the stash of Paralympic medals and some from the world championships, too. They won so many Brian was named to the Canadian 2010 Olympic team, the first Winter Paralympian to be so honoured.
Unfortunately for McKeever, he was never called on to ski at the Whistler Nordic Centre. The decision devastated him and unleashed an angry barrage from Canadians who felt McKeever should have raced. McKeever was gracious in despair. He went to the Vancouver Paralympics and won three gold medals.
His current career count sits at nine gold, two silver and a bronze.
Calgary alpine skier Lauren Woolstencroft retired after winning 10 medals, including eight gold.
Asked if he was excited to be Canada’s most-successful Winter Paralympian, McKeever acknowledged winning medals was nice but there was something else at play: the satisfaction of doing your best and accepting it, even if it wasn’t enough to reach the podium.
“It’s a confirmation of the journey. We put in all this training, hundreds of hours, and it’s not all about the medals. It’s trying to put that performance in on the day,” he said. “[Falling and losing ground in a sprint] is definitely not the easy way to go. It was stressful and it was fun. That’s what you compete for.”