February 14, 2010 (Canmore, AB) – Canada’s 2010 Olympic Cross Country
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Brian McKeever will be the first to tell you that he isn’t special among his teammates. While they all have something special to contribute, McKeever’s story is unique and historic as the four-time gold medallist from the 2002 and 2006 Paralympics becomes the first winter-sport athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
McKeever began his racing career by following in his older brother Robin’s footsteps. Arguably one of the most naturally gifted skiers Canada has seen, Robins abilities were manifest in Brian as well, right from the start. The year Robin qualified for the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan was the same year Brian raced at the Nordic World Junior Championships. It was a big year for the McKeever boys, but not all the news was good. After returning home from Junior Worlds, Brian began to notice problems reading road signs and other vision peculiarities. A short while later he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a degenerative condition that has left him with, at present, only 10% vision, and all of it peripheral.
A veteran of many Para-nordic World Cups, and two Winter Paralympics, Brian’s outlook has been the key to his success. That success has culminated with being named to Team Canada for both the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, becoming the first winter athlete to do so. We caught up him at his home in Canmore following a training camp at Engadine Lodge, as he generously made time from his hectic schedule for a good talk and some excellent coffee.
What have you been up to since the Alberta World Cup?
Brian McKeever: Lots of things, it’s been pretty busy. We’ve been in training camp mode for a while, but with lots of extra curriculars that you don’t always deal with like speed suit fitting, celebration events, and meetings. It’s so busy that I had to start saying no to some things. There was a team dinner that I really would have loved to go to, but at some point you just can’t do everything.
Is there a difference in how you approach a Para World Cup versus an able-bodied one like last weekend’s Alberta World Cup?
BM: I look at all World Cups as what they are: an opportunity to race, just like all the other opportunities. People tend to think they need to step up their game at a World Cup, to do something different than what was obviously working well enough to get them to the World Cup. One thing I learned in Bruksvalarna (Sweden), where I was recovering from a nasty bout of swine flu, is to go into races calm, with no pressure to “perform”. I don’t try to give more than I can give. That part of it is the same for both able-body and para races. What changes in my approach to able-body World Cups is that I spend more time figuring things out; the little things like testing skis…it’s more about me and making sure I’m at my best. At para races, it’s not always about me. Robin and I try to help out the others on the team as best we can, to make sure they’ve got everything they need. Para helped me so much that I feel it’s my responsibility to give something back, especially since Robin and I are well-established veterans on that circuit.
Your condition is degenerative. Did that add any pressure; make you feel like you were fighting against the clock to get an Olympic spot this year?
BM: No, not really. I had a decent shot at making the last Olympics [Torino in 2006] but I just couldn’t put it together on the day that it mattered. That was still a big confidence boost, and made me focus on what I had to do to not miss my big chance this year, and it all came together well. What was more difficult was dealing with the knee-jerk reaction to the eye diagnosis when it first happened. When I left that appointment I actually went back to work. But it was like a light had gone out, like my Olympic dream might be dead. It took a long time to realize that life wouldn’t really change that much. I looked to my Dad a lot. As I said, the para team really helped me, sort of gave me a new life and kept me racing. They did for me what the U23 World Championships does for a lot of skiers – it gives them a reason to keep skiing, to help manage the transition from junior to senior. I wonder sometimes who else from my early ski years might still be racing if U23s had been in place then. Skiing with the para team really showed me that all I wanted to do was be a ski racer. In any situation you can tell when your body is really starting to perform well, and that’s when I decided to start racing able-body again. The thought of making history never even entered my mind.
When did it first hit you that you actually had made history?
BM: I was asked to do a talk for a support group for visually impaired kids, in Calgary. The first time I was asked was in the fall, then again just before Olympic Trials, but despite lots of email traffic, logistically it just couldn’t work out till a few weeks ago. Talking to those kids is when it really hit me. I mean, I’d always admired the summer athletes who’ve done it, like the USA’s Marla Runyan (a legally blind runner and two time Olympian), and I always thought that was cool, but I never really drew the comparison with myself until doing that talk.
Given how important para sport has been in your career, and how much racing you’ve done with Robin as your guide, will you miss having him on the start line in Callaghan?
BM: Yes, definitely I’ll miss him being there, but I’ll be surrounded by a team that is really great. Everybody brings something to the table, so while Robin is my primary training partner, I’ve really benefited from training with everyone on the team. I’ve gotten to know and trust them all, and the coaches. And I feel like I can bring something to the table too, with extensive experience racing in Europe, both para and able-body. I’ll miss having Robin there, but I’m very confident in those around me.
With all of the media attention focused on the team and you as a media darling do you think it will be distracting?
BM: I don’t necessarily love media as a whole, but I realize that they play a big part in the survival of our sport. There are lots of media people who are great to deal with, people you can count on to get the story right, or hold off on the story if you can’t comment – people who know the sport, and love it. We can’t ignore the media as the high profile it brings the sport helps with sponsorship, so any good media coverage we can get is great for both for the team and for cross-country skiing in Canada. As for me being a media darling, I feel like everyone on the team is deserving of as much or more attention. Every one of us has an amazing story, and they’ll all be that much more amazing in two weeks time.
Thanks for your time, and the outstanding espresso. Best of luck in Whistler. Final question, do you have a secret for keeping your signature side burn chops so sharp and/or ascribe to the idea that bad race means the beard goes, a good race means it stays?
BM: Hahaha, well, I do have to buzz it about once a week or it gets really bushy. Other than that I just shave a swipe down the middle before race day. And no, if I shaved them off no one would be able to tell Robin and me apart.