Millions of Americans were introduced to Brian McKeever (and his older brother, Robin) during last month’s Super Bowl, when Paralympic sponsor Toyota aired a one-minute ad summing their athletic journey.
Many Canadians, and those in the international cross-country skiing world, were already aware of his accomplishments.
McKeever, 42, is competing in what he says will be his sixth and final Paralympics this week. He already has two gold medals in China, upping his career count to 15, one shy of the men’s record held by German Gerd Schönfelder, an Alpine skier who competed in six Winter Games from 1992-2010.
McKeever previously swept the three individual golds in the men’s visually impaired classification in 2010, 2014 and 2018. He gets the chance to do so again on Saturday, but he’s not dwelling on the opportunity to match Schönfelder’s record in the last individual Paralympic race of his career.
“I’ve never thought about any of them,” McKeever said of medal chasing after winning his most recent gold in his toughest event, the sprint, by eight tenths of a second over American Jake Adicoff on Wednesday. Earlier this week, McKeever said, “If we win, we’ll take it, if we’re fourth, then that’s the beauty and the pain of sport, you just turn around and shake everybody else’s hands because they beat you.”
The “we” has long been key for McKeever, who has competed with a guide for more than 20 years.
A skier at 3, and a competitive skier at 12, by his late teens he was having trouble reading billboards from the car window. He was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a degenerative form of vision loss, at 19.
“If you stare at the sun for a long time and turn away, you get these fuzzy spots,” McKeever said, according to the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “Well for me, the fuzzy spots don’t go away.”
Or, as he once said, “I can see the doughnut, but not the Timbit,” referring to the famous Canadian Tim Hortons pastry.
McKeever said losing his eyesight would have been tougher if not a role model like his dad, who was previously diagnosed with it as a younger child.
Before his diagnosis, McKeever was already competing internationally, following in Robin’s path. He continued to race fellow Olympic hopefuls on the International Ski Federation circuit, at least one stop every year from 1997 through 2022.
In 2007, McKeever was 21st in the world cross-country skiing championships 15km freestyle, three spots ahead of future Norwegian Olympic legend Petter Northug and four spots ahead of Italian Giorgio Di Centa, who won the closing 50km at the 2006 Torino Games.
At the time, McKeever’s preferred technique in non-disabled competition was classic, not freestyle, because of the established ski tracks making it easier to stay on course without a guide.
Brother Robin, a 1998 Olympic cross-country skier, was his guide at his first three Paralympics in 2002, 2006 and 2010. Guides can ski in front, acting as a reference point, and also receive medals.
“There were only four or five people in the country who could have gotten the job and been an effective guide for me,” McKeever said. “One of those people was Robin.”
For the 2010 Vancouver Games, McKeever also made the Canadian Olympic team, bidding to become the first athlete to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
However, he wasn’t selected to compete in any Olympic event. He missed selection for the four-man team in the closing 50km by one spot, learning of the decision the day before the race. McKeever said he was crushed by the coaches’ choice, but he understood.
A month later, McKeever began his streak that is now up to 11 gold medals in his last 11 individual cross-country races at the Paralympics. Robin is now his coach. Graham Nishikawa and 2018 Olympian Russell Kennedy have been his guides over the last two Games.
He announced in October 2020 that these Games would be his last. Earlier this week, he called it “a soft retiring.”
“I want to fade away slowly,” said McKeever, who has also worked as a mechanic, able to assemble bikes with his eyes closed. “We are still competitive, but I’m breaking down. You wake up in pain, you go to bed in pain, so it’s certainly time.”
He has to get up for one more individual event, a middle-distance race on Saturday. The American Adicoff, who is 16 years younger, will be waiting for him, looking to deny history.
“We want it badly,” Adicoff said after Wednesday’s close sprint. “[McKeever] is standing right there. I am not sure if he can hear us, but we want it badly.”
NBC Olympic and Paralympic research contributed to this report.
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