SOCHI, Russia — Mission accomplished!
Canada’s Para-Nordic Ski Team wrapped up the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in thrilling fashion with a double-gold performance in cross-country skiing on Sunday.
In two of the most challenging classifications, Chris Klebl, of Canmore, Alta., shocked the world to win the men’s 10-kilometre sit-ski race, while Brian McKeever won his third gold medal of the week in the visually impaired category.
The 42-year-old Klebl put down the performance of the Games when it counted most to win Canada its final gold medal, and secure the country its goal of finishing in the top-three in the overall medal count. Klebl clocked a time of 30 minutes, 52.0 seconds (30:52.0).
“It feels pretty good for sure,” said Klebl. “I have exceptional skis for wet, sloppy conditions and today we got exactly those conditions. It just feels good. We prepare for this over and over and over again to try and get things to line up, and today it did.”
A three-time Paralympian, Klebl moved to Canmore, Alta. to join the Canucks from the United States following the 2010 Games. He first made history as a member of the Canadian Team in 2011 by winning the World Championships in the sit-ski distance race.
Klebl, who grew up in Austria where he skied and snowboarded, became paralyzed from the waist down in 1995 in a snowboarding accident.
Sunday’s victory was particularly important as Canada was in a fight for third spot in the overall Paralympic gold medal count with the Ukraines with the final sit-ski race remaining.
Klebl held off the Ukraine’s Maksym Yarovyi, who finished second at 31:06.5. Russia’s Grigory Murygin skied to the bronze at 31:18.2.
“It means a tonne to me to contribute to Canada’s medal count,” said Klebl. “Four years ago I made a major decision to move to Canada, and Cross Country Canada and the Own the Podium program have backed me since. I just wanted to pay them back.”
While Klebl grabbed Canada’s final gold medal at the 2014 Games, it was Brian McKeever who secured the nation its first. On Sunday the legendary Paralympian was at it again.
Battling race fatigue and strong headwinds, the 34-year-old McKeever utilized a two-guide strategy with Erik Carleton and Graham Nishikawa, for the second time this week to gut out an impressive come-from-behind victory. Team McKeever posted a time of 23 minutes, 18.1 seconds in the men’s 10-kilometre skate-ski visually impaired category.
“That one was tough. It hurt,” said McKeever. “I woke up this morning and didn’t feel great. It was all on the guides again today. They did such a good job with the headwind. I was able to tuck in behind them and save a lot of energy. By the time we got to the last lap there was still a little gas left to get us by today.”
Outside of sprint racing, it was the smallest margin of victory at a Paralympic Winter Games for McKeever, winning by just eight seconds.
Russia’s Stanislav Chokhlaev skied to the silver at 23:25.1, while Thomas Clarion, of France, rounded out the podium in third with a time of 24:14.9.
The Canadians leveraged a two-guide race strategy to pull McKeever to the top of the podium.
The 36-year-old Carleton, of Canmore, Alta., led the way around the first 6.5-kilometres before coach Robin McKeever called in Graham Nishikawa, of Whitehorse, to pull him into the winner’s circle. McKeever was behind 12 seconds at the five-kilometre mark in the race.
“Having guided for 10 years I know how incredibly hard it is to do this job in the wind,” said Robin McKeever, head coach, Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team, who led his brother to 10 Paralympic podiums. “It is like a tow truck pulling a Ferrari out there in the wind.
“For the guide, it is like doing a one-kilometre sprint race just to stay ahead of Brian. But the problem is you have to keep that pace for nine more kilometres. It is so difficult.”
“Having guided for 10 years I know how incredibly hard it is to do this job in the wind. It is like a tow truck pulling a Ferrari out there in the wind.” — Robin McKeever, Canadian Para-Nordic Ski Team Head Coach and former guide for his brother, Brian McKeever
Consummate team players, Carleton and Nishikawa shared the workload and trips to the podium this week to help McKeever accomplish his goal of a golden hat-trick.
“It is so tough out there and I’m thankful Graham was here to help us out and get the job done,” said Carleton. “I went hard off the start and just tried to hang on.”
“Brian is just such an incredible athlete so it is very difficult to stay ahead of him,” added Nishikawa. “This whole week has been such an awesome experience. I’ve been so impressed with everything, and of course I’d love to be back again.”
The victories bring McKeever’s Paralympic gold medal count to 10, making him the only winter Paralympian to reach double digits. He has a total of 13 Paralympic medals.
“The medals this week were very special,” said McKeever. “The way we did it was such a team effort. Both guides gave me a solid draft all week, which made a huge difference in the conditions. We orchestrated a great team effort and that makes it so special to me.”
Other Canadian results on Sunday included: Mark Arendz (Hartsville, P.E.I.) in 11th at 25:16.4; and Louis Fortin (Fredericton, N.B) 36th at 32:58.8 in the men’s 10-kilometre standing race. Brittany Hudak, of Prince Albert, Sask., was 12th at 15:35.0, and Ottawa’s Caroline Bisson 16th at 16:55.2 in the women’s five-kilometre standing category.
Robbi Weldon (Thuder Bay, Ont,) and her guide Phil Wood (Canmore, Alta.) were seventh at 15:32.5, while Ottawa’s Margarita Gourbonova and her guide of Regina’s Andrea Bundon were eighth at 15:42.2 in the women’s five-kilometre visually impaired race. Saskatoon’s Colette Bourgonje was 13th in women’s five-kilometre sit-skiing at 18:13.0. Yves Bourque, of Becancour, Que., was 24th at 39:11.5, and Quebec City’s Sebastien Fortier was 26th (40:03.4) in the men’s 10-kilometre sit-ski race.
In addition to McKeever and Klebl’s four golds, Canada’s Para-Nordic squad will leave Sochi with six medals. Mark Arendz also won a silver and one bronze in biathlon racing.