Brian McKeever decided to take a gamble and the payoff was Canada’s first gold medal at the Sochi Paralympics.
The cross-country skier won the men’s 20-kilometre visually impaired event Monday thanks in part to a risky move at the midway point of the race. The eight-time Paralympic gold medalist — who has been battling a virus since arriving in Russia last week — started with guide Erik Carleton before switching to alternate Graham Nishikawa at the 10-kilometre mark amid sloppy conditions and warm temperatures.
It was a play McKeever had never before attempted in competition.
“Today was great,” said McKeever. “It was really tough. Being sick last week made it hard and definitely made us a little nervous. It was huge team effort having two guides out there sharing the work. It was definitely needed. They were the ones that got me through today because I couldn’t have done that on my own.
“The snow being what it was, it was much faster to be in behind. Those guys were, unfortunately for them, working pretty damn hard.”
The 34-year-old from Canmore, Alta., finished in a time of 52 minutes 37.1 seconds with the help of a plan he devised with his coach and brother Robin.
The idea was for Carleton to guide the first 12 kilometres before giving way to Nishikawa. But when Carleton began to fade earlier than expected, Nishikawa stepped in to finish the job and lead McKeever to a victory of more than a minute over Russia’s Stanislav Chokhlaev.
“I’m just happy that it worked out,” said Robin McKeever, who used to guide his brother before retiring because of a knee injury. “Brian is very fast and in conditions like today, it’s much faster to follow.”
However, the move to swap guides was not without potential pitfalls.
“Your two risks are the (second) guide starts too fast and (tires) himself or he starts too fast and (tires) the athlete,” said Robin McKeever. “Brian is the throttle so he can tell his guides faster, slower, whatever. That’s the biggest key for how Brian races.
“They trained really well as a team all summer and winter. It’s a really big team effort for those three guys today.”
Brian McKeever — who is legally blind but still has his peripheral vision — said he wasn’t concerned about switching guides halfway through the race, but rather his stamina after not being able to get out of bed last week.
“It was more about my own shape and just not knowing whether I was going to be half-decent or just a bag of wet towels,” said McKeever, who now has 11 Paralympic medals to his name. “You just don’t know until you start racing and pushing.
“I definitely stared at my eyelids one whole day — spent the whole day in bed — just feeling like I didn’t want to be here.”
Carleton was named on the start list for the race and will share the gold medal with McKeever, something that suited Nishikawa just fine.
“It’s my first time at a Paralympic Games, it’s my first time guiding Brian, so it’s a totally new world for me. I’m just really excited,” said the 30-year-old from Whitehorse who also races in able-bodied events for Canada. “It’s incredible — really inspiring to be here.
“We’re all here for Brian. We have a tough job most of the time. Brian is a world-class athlete and we have to be out in front working our butts off to stay in front of him and help him deliver his performance. It’s feels great to be a part of it.”
Chokhlaev took silver with a time of 53:43.3, while Sweden’s Zebastian Modin grabbed bronze in 56:34.9.
For his part, the 34-year-old Carleton said he was comfortable with the plan to be spelled by Nishikawa at some point during the race.
“It feels good. I’m really happy. It’s always tough guiding a guy as fast as Brian,” said the Canmore resident. “I did what I could today. It’s good that it worked out in the end.”
Despite the soupy conditions — which included temperatures in the mid-teens— and the virus that cut him down just a few days earlier, McKeever is now a third of the way to completing the same gold-medal trifecta he accomplished at the Vancouver Paralympics four years ago.
“We didn’t know how we were going to feel so we made sure we started conservatively and just built every lap a little bit more and a little bit more,” he said. “We knew what to expect (with the snow). We’ve been here for a week”
McKeever — who made the 2010 Olympic team before being named the first alternate for the Sochi Games — presents a unique challenge in the Paralympic world.
“You’ve only got a handful of guys in the country that you can rely on to guide. The guide should be at least as fast, but generally faster than the athlete would be preferable,” Robin McKeever said in explaining the decision to bring Nishikawa into the fold. “We knew that going in Erik was not quite in the shape that Brian was last year. Brian, in able-bodied racing head-to-head, often beats Erik. With Graham Nishikawa, they’re closer.”
Brian McKeever said having both Carleton and Nishikawa on board simply gives the trio options.
It worked to perfection on Monday.
“We never know how we’re going to feel, any one of us, when we’re out there on the track,” said McKeever. “If one of the guides is having a great day, they’re going to stick out there the whole time. If I’m having a great day maybe it’s tough for the guides to stay out front. You just have to feel it out while you’re skiing.”