As soon as Robin McKeever arrived home from competing at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, he got the bad news. His younger brother, Brian, just 18, had been diagnosed with Stargardt's disease. Blindness was on the horizon, not to mention the loss of a dream.
"I thought he was never going to experience what I experienced," Robin recalled. "I was hoping we'd get to compete together at an Olympics."
The McKeever brothers won't be skiing together at next month's Vancouver Olympics, but the guy who's been legally blind for more than a decade has found his way onto the course. When Cross-Country Canada named its 11-member Olympic ski team yesterday, it was highlighted by the news Brian McKeever will race in both an Olympics and a Paralympics. It's a remarkable achievement considering Stargardt's robbed McKeever's central vision and left him with only a peripheral view of the world.
( Italian short track speed skaterOrazio Fagone competed in two Olympics [1992 and 1994] and after losing his leg in a motorcycle accident, he played on Italy's sledge hockey team at the Paralympic Games in Turin.)
McKeever has long been motivated by what he can do, not what he can't.
"Would it have stung if you weren't named to the Olympic team?" McKeever was asked during a news conference held at the Canmore Nordic Centre.
"It would have, for sure," he admitted. "Once you put in the kind of work it takes and set out to do it, and to have it taken away; that would be hard to take. But we had a plan, Robin and I, to qualify for the Olympics and then compete at the Paralympics. The Paralympics were never out of the picture."
A multiple-Paralympic medalist, McKeever is allowed to have a guide, his brother, when he competes in Paralympic events. At the Olympics, he'll have no such luxury. If someone were to fall directly in front of him, chances are he'd keep right on going and fall, too.
And yet McKeever's track record has shown he can do well against able-bodied foes. In 2007, he scored Canada's top finish (21st) at the FIS world championships in Sapporo, Japan. Last month, needing to convince CCC officials he should be included on the Olympic squad, McKeever sealed his spot by winning a 50-kilometre NorAm race here, one of four Olympic trials.
"I knew I'd done my part and done my best," said McKeever. "But we weren't sure about the number of spots (Canada would have on its Olympic cross-country team). It's exciting to have the opportunity to do both the Olympics and Paralympics. It's a neat thing."
Canada's Olympic cross-country team, unveiled by former Olympian Beckie Scott, boasts a promising mix. There are six men and five women; Olympic rookies and seasoned veterans; World Cup medalists and an Olympic champion.
The men's side consists of: George Grey and Alex Harvey, who won a World Cup bronze medal in the team sprint event in Whistler last year; Devon Kershaw, who is planning to ski in five events; Ivan Babikov, who raced for Russia in the 2006 Turin Olympics. Stefan Kuhn also made the team after taking three years off from competing at the elite level. Like McKeever, he made the team by qualifying through the Olympic trials.
The women's group is led by 2006 medalists Chandra Crawford (gold) and Sara Renner (silver). Vancouver will be Renner's fourth Olympic appearance. Joining Crawford and Renner will be Perianne Jones, Madeleine Williams and 26-year-old rising star Dasha Gaiazova.
The Moscow-born Gaiazova won three of the four Olympic trials. She was an alternate for Canada at the 2006 Olympics and, much like Babikov, is anxious to race for her adopted nation.
"To be at the starting line [in Whistler] I'll be high from adrenalin for about two weeks," Gaiazova said with a laugh.