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'Scary and exciting' time for McKeevers as new national team coaches

"We love the sport and we've both been doing it for the better part of our lives in many different roles and many different ways."

CANMORE – When Canmore's Brian McKeever started skiing and racing on frozen trails, the young athlete's older brother and Olympian Robin McKeever was never too far away to give advice.

Now as the sun officially sets on Brian's legendary cross-country skiing career and the 20-time Paralympic medallist's life shifts toward a new era, he's comforted in knowing that big bro is still there to offer guidance in a different type of way.

The McKeevers are at the helm of Nordiq Canada's top teams as Brian moves to coaching the Para nordic ski program, while Robin transitions to head coach of the national ski team (NST).

"When I started my career in racing and [Robin] was racing, he was my mentor," said Brian. "Then at some point over the years, as my racing knowledge developed, we rose up to equal standing. I started being self-directed in most of my training. But now, moving into this coaching role, he's now going to be back to being that mentorship role, so that's kind of cool. I'm looking forward to that."

This past April, Robin became head coach of the NST after more than two decades working with and leading the Para nordic ski program.

Along with Robin, the NST added Chris Jeffries as its new high performance director to fill roles that haven't been around in years.

Under the notion of if it's not broken don't fix it, the first order of business has been to establish a similar program to what's made the Para team successful – buying into a system and team concepts.

"We were a very well tuned and in-tune team and that's kind of the key to the success of it all to be quite honest," said Robin.

"The [NST] athletes haven't had a great program, let's call it, for high performance over the last sort of at least quadrennial or longer. ... Hopefully there is now at least the development of a program for those athletes that we can also build upon so that they feel they want to focus on process."

The last time Canada stood on an Olympic podium was in 2006. However, at the 2022 Beijing Games, Antoine Cyr and Graham Ritchie had a historic day when they finished in fifth place in the classic sprint – a Canadian men’s Olympic best.

Robin hands off the Para program's baton to Brian and Bjorn Taylor, athlete and coach development manager, to tackle day-to-day operations with the accomplished Para team that he and Brian established as one of the world's best.

"In all honesty, I think this is a scary moment for both of us," said Robin, "but also really exciting. It is a shift in a whole new world for both Brian and I and we will do what we can. We love the sport and we've both been doing it for the better part of our lives in many different roles and many different ways."

Under the McKeevers, the Para nordic program shifted from recreational to world class. Since 2014, its athletes have won 36 Paralympic medals, including a record 16 medals in 2018 PyeongChang.

It will be a bit of learning on the job, said Brian, but Canada's most decorated Paralympian is nervously excited for the challenge.

Brian lives with Stargardt's disease – a macular degeneration that's made him legally blind.

When he still competed, Brian held a mentorship role for younger athletes – helping with day-to-day training, chats, and teaching them about a high-performance lifestyle.

He doesn't think there will be a big shift in the coaching style at the successful Para program. Its team-first philosophy will remain intact, and communication between coaches and athletes will be key.

"It will take some adjustments as we all adapt to our new relationships," said Brian. "Where I get nervous now is that there are lots of people relying on me and I now have to learn about their individual physiologies and what's going to make them fast as individuals while preserving the whole team aspect of it."

Brian started racing at the 2002 Salt Lake City Paralympics and was guided by Robin until 2010. Olympians Russell Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa, the new NextGen coach, continued guiding duties all the way to Beijing.

The five-time Paralympian made it known Beijing would be his final Games, but still flirted with the idea to the public and media that he'd return to competition the next season.

"Let's face it, I was retired at the [Beijing] Games. I just wasn't talking about it," said Brian.

"I absolutely [still] wanted to be a part of the national team program that we've developed and that I was a part of as an athlete, but also a mentor. It is like a family."

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

Jordan Small joined the Outlook in 2014 and covers the vast world of sports in the Bow Valley. A Barrie, Ont. native, he also wrote for RMO's Mountain Guide section and the MD of Bighorn beat.
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