Supporting Canadian Athletes

Brian McKeever

Brian McKeever’s success as a seven-time Paralympic medalist in cross-country skiing bodes well for the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s goal of achieving a top three finish in medal standings at the 2010 Vancouver Games. On top of his impressive podium performances, Brian made history as the first Canadian athlete with a disability to ski in an international able bodied race at the 2008 Cross Country Ski World Championships, placing an impressive 21st.

Brian, born in Calgary, AB, has been an active athlete most of his life. His father introduced him to cross country skiing at the age of three not knowing it would be the start of a lengthy and successful career in the sport. “My dad was a physical education teacher so we were always involved in sports”, says Brian, “It was very important to my dad that we have fun and it was his influence that got me active at an early age.”

At the age of eighteen, almost one year after his first Junior World Championship, he received devastating news. He was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, a form of macular degeneration that affects central vision. It causes a blind spot in the middle of each eye, leaving Brian with about 10% of his total vision. “I see the doughnut but not the timbit”, Brian jokes.

Brian got over the initial shock of the diagnosis quickly, deciding that things could be a lot worse than they were. “I don’t think I would change it because it has made me the person that I am today and I like who I am”, says Brian.

Being legally blind presents certain challenges for Brian in everyday life, not just in his athletic endeavours. Driving is not an option, so he must live close enough to his training locations for him to bike or walk. He also feels it is important to have an understanding partner who is willing to drive him if he needs a ride somewhere. Reading is very difficult, especially when he has selection criteria documents to read. “You could always tell when my dad was reading the newspaper because he would have a black smudge on the end of his nose. Now that happens to me too!” Brian laughs.

Brian believes that a disability should never stop you from pursuing your life’s ambitions. Despite the fact that he has this disease, he does not feel that he has been dealt an unfair disadvantage. “Not everyone has physical limitations, but people often put psychological limitations on themselves which sometimes is just as big of a challenge,” he says. “We all learn from each other, with or without a disability.”

The 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics made a lasting impact on Brian. He remembers that they never had a TV to watch as children, but the 1988 Olympics were deemed important enough to get their broken one repaired. Those were the Games that fuelled his dreams of one day becoming an Olympian himself.

Not long after Brian was diagnosed with Stargardt’s, the disabled ski team contacted him to join them. There was no question about who would be his guide. His brother, Robin, an Olympian who competed at the 1998 Olympic Games and who had been a fixture on the national cross country ski team since he was 16, was the ideal partner. Together, the two of them have forged a winning path to podium success.

Just three years later, Brian won two gold medals and one silver at the 2002 Paralympic Games. In 2005 he was the ‘able bodied’ National Champion and went on to win two gold medals, one silver and one bronze at the 2006 Paralympic Games. In 2007 he qualified for the able bodied World Championships and earned the top Canadian result.

Brian is now the best blind skier in the world. He states how tremendously proud he is to represent his country at the Paralympics and wear the national team uniform, “Something happens to you in that suit. It’s a good feeling. I always race better when I am wearing it!”

Brian’s leadership experience began when he first started receiving requests for motivational speaking events in the community. In 2006, Brian was elected athlete rep for the sport of Para Nordic where he took over the challenge of providing input and solving issues that could affect many of his teammates. Since then, the position has enabled Brian to voice his opinion on such matters as selection criteria, where funding comes from and where it could best be used for program support.

He continues to enjoy promoting Paralympic sport and physical activity in youth through various community events and in his spare time, you can find Brian volunteering his time participating in the Stat Oil family ski days by skiing with the families and teaching lessons to the kids. In addition, Brian lends his leadership and expertise at local ski sales to promote community participation in the sport.

Internationally, Brian is very passionate about the organization Right to Play and believes it is a very important and worthwhile organization.

Looking ahead to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Brian says he is ramping up the hours for training and competition and focusing on getting healthy. In October 2008, Brian suffered a stress fracture in his rib which prevented him from entering any races until January of the current season. He hasn’t let the setback affect his confidence though, and believes strongly in the training program that the team is following. “When you have confidence like that, the mental and physical aspects of training fall into place”, says Brian.

Since there are so few Para races, Brian competes in able bodied races to push his limits and become a faster skier. When he is not racing with Robin, he must carefully inspect the course before a race in order to commit it to memory.

In their relatively young Paralympic career, the McKeever brothers have already earned a total of seven Paralympic medals, but Brian has set his sights higher for 2010. He is attempting to make history by becoming the first athlete with a disability to qualify and compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in the same year. Although his most recent injury will make it tougher to accomplish this goal, Brian believes that if he can train hard all summer there is a good chance he can achieve his objectives. He doesn’t want to just show up at the Olympics, he wants to have races that he will be proud of and that will put him in shape for the Paralympics!

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