PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Brian McKeever’s bitterness over the 2010 Vancouver Olympic snub cost him the better part of two seasons, and robbed him of his love of the sport.
Canada’s most successful winter Paralympian — with guide Russell Kennedy — skied to his second gold medal in Pyeongchang in the 1.5 kilometre sprint classic, the 12th gold of his career, and the 38-year-old from Canmore, Alta., talked about the tough road back from resentment.
“I was angry,” said McKeever, who’s visually impaired. “Every year I still feel that, I feel that I lost something. I feel like I lost a chance. And that will probably never go away. I tried to train through it, and I tried to train with a renewed purpose, that ‘I’m going to go back and get to the next level.’
“But it was with the wrong emotion, it was with the wrong head. And once I was able to refocus and say ‘If I’m going to make it to Sochi and do well, I have to do it on my own terms and enjoy it.'”
McKeever’s gold was one of six medals won Wednesday, boosting Canada’s total to 16, tying their result from four years ago in Sochi.
McKeever, who carried Canada’s flag into last week’s opening ceremonies, was poised to make history in Vancouver as the world’s first athlete to compete in the winter Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. But Canada’s Olympic cross-country coaches opted to enter four other skiers in the men’s 50-kilometre race in a controversial decision.
McKeever, the odd man out, hadn’t been focused on making history so much as he’d dreamed of lining up against the world’s best on sport’s grandest stage. And when it didn’t happen “I actually gave away a couple of good years,” he said.
He eventually went back to the basics and forced himself to remember why he loves skiing — “just the feeling of gliding, and the effort that it takes to get that … and I find it very meditative, the training aspect. It’s repetitive for hours and hours. I enjoy that. It’s good for my head.”
Wednesday’s sprint races saw skiers leave from the start at intervals based on the severity of their disabilities. McKeever and Kennedy started 28 seconds behind Zebastian Modin and then hunted down the Swedish skier and his guide, furiously double-poling up the steep climbs until they caught the Swedes. McKeever entered the stadium with a comfortable lead, crossing in 4 minutes 3.2 seconds, 2.5 seconds ahead of runner-up Modin.
The 5-foot-8 McKeever, dressed in a red-and-white Canadian cap and red wraparound sunglasses, laughingly grumbled about how this particular victory had been no fun at all.
“I don’t like these sprints,” said McKeever, who has two more races in Pyeongchang. “Maybe when I was early 20s, but the older I get the harder this is, and the more that I focus on longer distance stuff, the harder this is too.”
He and Kennedy joked about how they were going so hard, they communicated on the course through “grunts.”
Kennedy, a Paralympic rookie who competed for Canada in last month’s Olympics, said he’s loving this new side of the sport.
“It’s different especially coming from the Olympics where it’s all focused on yourself,” said the 26-year-old from Canmore, Alta. “It’s a lot more communication and talking to each other, but it’s also really rewarding because you do it as a team.”
Mark Arendz and Natalie Wilkie each won bronze Wednesday in the 1.5-kilometre race, while Canada picked up three bronze in Alpine skiing’s giant slalom, from Mollie Jepsen, Mac Marcoux, and Alexis Guimond.
McKeever said a big part of finally shaking that post-Vancouver anger was remembering how much he loves promoting Paralympic sport. And as one of Canada’s most recognizable Paralympians, the 19-time world champion plays a huge role in that.
McKeever has Stargardt’s disease, which took his central vision at the age of 19. He still has 100 percent peripheral vision. His dad lost his vision to the disease, while his older brother Robin, a retired Olympic skier and Brian’s first guide, wasn’t affected.
McKeever would love to change perceptions of people with disabilities.
“So what? In the end I can’t drive. If that’s the worst of it, no big deal. There’s 30 million people in Tokyo, how many of them are driving? They’re all taking the subway to get to work,” McKeever said. “Everybody has something that makes us insecure, and shapes our perspective of the world that we live in. We can see it as a physical disability, we can see it as an emotional disability, and we can see it as psychological. All that stuff is there. Or we can choose to not see it at all.”
McKeever said he quit seeing it in the Paralympic world.
“You walk past the wax rooms, and there’s a bunch of wheelchairs, and a couple of legs lying on the ground, and that’s just totally normal,” he said.
Having a blind dad with a great sense of humour helped.
“We grew up on the farm with some pretty black humour, there was a lot of self-deprecating humour,” he said. “It probably helped me move on from my own disability when it started to happen, but also from a lot of just social issues that we come across too.
“I was fortunate to grow up really liberal in that sense, taking people as individuals and not lumping people into groups. That’s the easiest thing to do. It’s difficult to go up to somebody, regardless of disability, race, whatever, and see that this person is an individual and we could get along great or we could hate each other, but we don’t know that until we start talking. As opposed to ‘I’m a blind guy from Canada. This guy’s missing a leg from Ukraine.’ It’s really important to have that conversation and make your own decisions after meeting somebody.”
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