CANMORE – With a major international competition just weeks away, it would be understandable for rising cross-country skiing star Xavier McKeever to have reason to worry.
After all, there has not been much of a season so far, and it can be anguishing to predict where the Canmore teen actually stacks up against the rest.
But the approach the 17-year-old is taking toward the Nordic Junior World Ski Championships (JWC) next month is with an unbending confidence, backed by a disciplined and focused work ethic and an uncanny natural talent for the winter sport that flows through his veins.
“Last year, I was targeting top 20. This year, as progression goes, I’m looking for top 10,” McKeever said about the biggest race of the year.
The son of Olympians Milaine Thériault and Robin McKeever and nephew of Brian McKeever, who is widely considered one of the best Para Nordic skiers ever, cross-country skiing undoubtedly runs deep in his bloodline – and that comes with pressure to live up to.
But a McKeever or not, this kid is hungry for it, said Eric Groeneveld, the teen's head coach at Foothills Nordic Ski Club since 2017.
“He's always going to have that hype around him because his family is so prominent, you know, everyone’s got high expectations for him. But nobody is making him do it – he wants it,” Groeneveld said.
The young McKeever has been making headlines for years; starting at age 11 when he won two gold medals at the Alberta Winter Games. At 15, he was selected to represent Canada at world juniors. He was the youngest competitor on the course.
At 17, when some competitors might be racing at the world juniors for the first time, it is a familiar dance for McKeever – despite the unusual circumstances leading up to this year's event.
Unable to officially race yet this season has not been ideal for any competitor, but luckily enough for McKeever, the Frozen Thunder snow track has been a haven during the pandemic. Conveniently located in his hometown's backyard at the Canmore Nordic Centre, McKeever said he has worked hard to improve his skating technique and getting in as many time trials as possible.
“Obviously, it was a big bummer as a skier [to not race]. Competing is what you look forward to,” McKeever said. “I’ve just been racing [time trials against] some of the seniors here who have done well in NorAm’s and being close with them, in my opinion, it’s looking not too bad.”
Through it all, Groeneveld said his pupil’s training has hardly been hindered – he has put in tons of work at Frozen Thunder.
The coach expects an improvement coming into February's junior worlds in Finland, as well.
“Knowing his goals, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for him to hit a top 10 or even a medal performance at the world juniors,” said Groeneveld.
“He has always had a really heavy technical focus and I think that’s one of his strong suits as an athlete. Also, I think he has been able to minimize a lot of the distractions from the pandemic and get done what he has needed to get done.”
A year prior, McKeever made some noise at the world juniors in Oberwiesenthal, Germany.
Just 16 years old, he scored a top 20 performance in the 10-km classic sprint, finishing 17th, and followed it up with 32nd in the 30-km.
But what stole the show was an astonishing podium finish in men’s four-by-five relay for McKeever and his Canadian teammates. The historic silver medal was Canada’s first ever at the world junior ski championships.
“This year, the picture is a little bit different,” said McKeever. “Our best skier last year is no longer a junior, so he won’t be on that team. But overall, I feel we have a good enough team as it stands with three of our members from last year on it and one new member. We can still get a good result in it for sure.”
From Feb. 8-14, McKeever is in Vuokatti, Finland, and he is in prime condition, and those around him, are excitedly waiting for what he will be bringing to the table.
“He has high expectations this year,” said coach Groeneveld, “and I think that’s good.”