Sharply stirred awake, Brian McKeever reaches for a bottle of painkillers on the nightstand in the dark of night.
An aging athlete’s body, at odds with itself again, has shaken McKeever awake from sleep. He knows ins and outs of this frequent ache like an old ski rival’s best moves.
Grabbing the bottle, it rattles, he pops open the top and downs a couple relieving pills.
He forgets about going back to sleep; the stinging pain will keep him up anyway.
Slowly, McKeever pulls himself out of bed and walks to the kitchen, his joints lock up and he feels every awkward crunch and pop along the way. Joining the fight next inside the 42-year-old are the anti-inflammatory pills.
These are the shitty days McKeever won’t miss – if his nagging body ever lets him forget.
A lifetime of pushing limits and training tens of thousands of hours caught up years ago to the Paralympic skier from Canmore.
It’s a miserable and dirty job, but putting in hard work has always been non-negotiable.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about someone having talent. I don’t really believe in that,” said McKeever. “It’s not about people wanting it; there’s no secrets, it’s just about putting in work and guys at the top put in a lot of work.”
With 17 Paralympic medals, McKeever is a legend no matter how you cut it.
Come March, McKeever will race at the Beijing Paralympics, his sixth Games, lining up with one of two guides, Graham Nishikawa or Russell Kennedy.
After more than two decades in the sport, it’s the final Paralympics the Canmore cross-country skier is going to participate in. The build up, training camps and memorable experiences with people he’s comfortable with are the days McKeever will miss.
McKeever cut straight to the heart of the matter:
“For me, I look forward to this stuff because it’s an accumulation of four years; I don’t dread it, but I don’t necessarily love it either. Like I’m excited for it and I want to do well and I want to be there and I want to be prepared, but it’s stressful. It’s not like it’s fun. It’s work. I’ve been paid for four years to get good results and that comes with pressure and a lot of it is self-imposed and that’s fine. That’s been my life for a lot of years.”
The world champion isn’t saying he’s retiring by any means, but after more than two decades, he’s winding down.
“You know, what’s hard with being an amateur athlete in Canada is the fact that it’s still very amateur,” said Robin McKeever, head coach of Canada’s Para Nordic Ski team and Brian’s older brother.
“To keep doing this you absolutely have to love what you do because you certainly aren’t going to retire after your sports career is done.”
Over the Paralympic champ’s career, some might not realize the staggering war chest of medals and awards he’s earned.
A quick recap are 17 from the Paralympics, 16 from world championships and 51 from world cups.
In 2010, McKeever was the first athlete named to the Olympic and Paralympic teams at for the Vancouver Games. On the verge of history, McKeever was left out of the four-man Canadian team the night before the 50 kilometre classic at the Olympics as he was the fifth ranked member.
A quick Google search and one can find out how McKeever felt about that exclusion.
However, that’s part of the mountain bike fanatic’s charisma. A good dude, unfiltered and says what’s on his mind. A straight-shooter, if you will.
Kennedy, one of McKeever’s guides and closest compadres, thought to himself of a story that summed up five years with the Winter Paralympics G.O.A.T.
With a laugh, he was having difficulty coming up with something to say.
“Every training camp is quite the adventure with Brian,” said Kennedy, a 2018 Olympian.
“He’s been a huge mentor to me and my own personal career. He’s given me a lot of information that I’ve used. … We spend so much time training together; there’s not too many people that can hold a conversation and keep it interesting for four hours, but Brian’s one of those guys that can do it.
“It’s like I’m giving a wedding speech,” added Kennedy with a laugh.
A huge coffee geek, McKeever will make space in luggage to bring a 1970s lever espresso machine overseas to make cappuccinos as part of a ritual between him, Kennedy and Nishikawa (Nish).
“It’s just such a dumb thing to carry and throw an extra 10 pound coffee machine in your duffle bag. I wonder what securities think about that when they’re X-raying bags,” McKeever said.
Racing without coffee though? Now that would be rough.
“If Nish and I are rooming together and we don’t have an opportunity to make good coffee in the morning, we’re pretty grumpy about it,” said McKeever with a laugh. “We always joke, ‘hey, I’m not addicted, I just like it.’”
McKeever lives with Stargardt’s disease, which impairs vision acuity, and he is guided by Kennedy and Nishikawa.
It’s like a blotch in the centre of vision.
Growing up, McKeever’s parents regularly inquired about his sight. Both McKeever’s dad and aunt lived with the disease, developing symptoms young between six or seven years old.
It was a possibility he’d get it too, but going through teenage years and into a young man, McKeever kind of stopped thinking about it.
It wasn’t until he was last teens when he started having trouble late reading street signs that promoted a trip to the doctor. A blood test confirmed what he already knew.
Having thought it was something that happened to people younger in life, the guy who always makes sure he’s ready for competition wasn’t prepared for the laying-in-wait disease.
“At that point, it’s all emotional. Your rational brain is done,” said McKeever. “All the fears that come in are completely emotional and no basis and fact, we just assume it is, and it’s like life is going to change so much and I’ll probably not be able to ski so that changes the kind of degrees I’ll get and the work I’ll do. ... Of course, you look back and go ‘that was bullshit.’ None of that
Life changes and adapting is part of the process. Ahead of Beijing, McKeever is constantly mending to new things he’s been expecting. Age and injuries have all played a role in his “unquestionable decline.”
But, what really is decline with McKeever?
This past December, McKeever took home two gold medals at the Para Nordic ski world cup in Canmore.
An eternal professional, McKeever isn’t willing to leave Beijing second-guessing anything.
“I’ve had good races and lost and bad races and won, but I’m always just searching for the feeling at the end where I can say ‘yes, I‘m really satisfied with the work that went in and the effort I put in,’” said McKeever. “That, to me, is a victory and that is what I hope for.”