BEIJING – Brian McKeever is going out on top.
The 42-year-old from Canmore has been nothing but golden so far at his final Paralympics, winning two gold medals in the men’s vision impaired sprint and 20-kilometre Para cross-country races with seeing guide Russell Kennedy.
After two decades of clobbering competition, McKeever’s medal-tally is at 19, including 15 golds, as of Wednesday (March 9) at the Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics Games. He's one gold medal away from equalling the most top finishes ever at the winter Paralympics, held by multiple athletes.
Having a blast, the ski legend and star of a Super Bowl commercial continues to make it look easy out there.
“It ended up being one of those days where almost everything goes right,” said McKeever about winning his first gold in Beijing on Monday (March 7). “We started to enjoy ourselves and that doesn’t happen very often.”
McKeever, who lives with Stargardt's disease – a macular degeneration that's made him legally blind – was long gone in the race, finishing more than three minutes ahead of silver medallist Jake Adicoff of the United States.
Of course, it surprised McKeever at first that he and Kennedy gained such a giant lead, but they quickly realized why that was.
The Canucks made a veteran game-time decision to go without wax in the 20km, a choice that paid off in gold.
“We realized everyone was on kick wax,” McKeever said. “It’s not you’re making up one second here or losing one second there, it’s losing 10 to 15 seconds in a certain section and gaining 30 in another. It’s big swings.”
In the sprint, Sweden’s Zebastian Modin was the favourite going in and hadn’t lost to McKeever in the short race since PyeongChang 2018. Although, McKeever and Kennedy turned on the jets in the final stretch to hold off all challengers to capture first place.
McKeever spoke to Modin and said the Swede caught COVID in January at the worst possible time and still is feeling lingering effects of the virus.
When you cross the line like it's a walk in the park.— Paralympic Games (@Paralympics) March 9, 2022
It's Paralympic #Gold number FIFTEEN for @brianmckeever as he wins the cross-country men's sprint free vision impaired for a 4th time in a row.🇨🇦#Beijing2022 #WinterParalympics #ParaNordic @ParaSnowSports @CDNParalympics pic.twitter.com/CY1DJsshgo
There's a noticeable absence of one of the heavy-hitter nations in Beijing.
At these Paralympics, vision impaired Russian athletes such as bronze medallist Oleg Ponomarev, six-time medallist Nikolay Polukhin, three-time medallist Stanislav Chokhlaev and Vladimir Udaltsov aren’t present to faceoff against the dominant Canadian following the International Paralympic Committee’s ban of Russian and Belarusian athletes. The armies of the two European nations invaded Ukraine late in February and have been engaged in conflict since.
NATO condemned Russia and Belarus' actions and major sporting organizations have banned their athletes from competing.
McKeever, who has many international friends from two decades of competing, said the separation between sport and politics is a difficult one.
“It’s tough to separate a nation’s foreign policy from the potential views of the people who live there, it’s not always the same,” he said. “We saw it in Canada; there’s a protest going on about mask-mandates and freedom and there could easily be counter-protests going the other way, so everyone’s got an opinion.”
For Ukrainian athletes, who are present at the Paralympics, McKeever said he's been listening to woeful and anxious stories of what's happening back home.
“One of my buddies here is a guide and he talked to his girlfriend a day ago and she said maybe there was a 50/50 chance of getting out of their city. He said today she is safe, but yesterday she was not,” said McKeever. “When you hear stories like that, sport kind of takes a back seat. It’s hard to separate the feelings of people involved and the fact we're here trying to participate in a sporting event. It’s a bit of an existential crisis to be here and try to be excited about racing when we have friends suffering and people are dying. Nobodies winning here.”
Ukraine’s won 19 medals in Beijing (six gold, eight silver, five bronze) as of Wednesday.
The Canuck added what the Ukrainians have done so far is nothing less than inspiring.
“What they're doing here is impressive. The medals they’ve won, the performances some have been able to muster in the face of just a crushing, crushing situation," he said.