2018 Winter Paralympics (PyeongChang, South Korea): 15/20 k visually impaired and standing races
Make that record-breaking medal No. 14 for Brian McKeever. In his fifth Paralympics, the 38-year-old Canadian raced to the 11th gold medal of his career (and 14th medal total) on Monday at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. He did so in the 20-kilometer visually impaired freestyle cross-country race with his guides Graham Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy, who traded guiding responsibilities during the four-lap race.
McKeever finished in 46:02.4 minutes, more than a minute faster than silver medalist Yury Holub and his guide Dzmitry Budzilovich of Belarus, who finished 1:05 back in second. France’s Thomas Clarion (with guide Antoine Bollet) completed the podium in third (+1:33.3), Sweden’s Sebastian Modin (with guide Johannes Andersson) took fourth (+1:38.4) and American Jake Adicoff and his guide Sawyer Kesselheim placed fifth (+3:41.0).
“It was super good today. Thanks to our wax techs and both of these guides. They all did an awesome job,” McKeever said, according to a Canadian Paralympic Committee press release. “It is super windy out there so to be able to tuck in behind these big boys is important for me. They pushed hard, skied well and towed me along the whole way.”
Nishikawa led McKeever for the first half of the race before handing off to Kennedy.
“The biggest thing about coming in mid-race is I have to remember that I’m fresh and Brian has already skied 10 kilometres so you have to be careful not to go out too hard or he could blow up,” Kennedy explained. “Brian is such an incredible athlete. He is so fit, so I knew it would not be a major problem. It worked out really well today.”
After pushing hard in the middle of the race, McKeever changed skis at 14 k, then worked to hang on to the sizable lead he had built.
“The plan was to ski comfortably into it and build towards the end, and I think I built a little too much during the middle and almost undid it because that last lap was very hard to keep the pace,” McKeever said with a laugh. “It was touch and go there for a bit, but we did enough in the middle to build a nice cushion, and we were able to manage it and hang on.”
The race was McKeever’s first of the 2018 Games and came three days after he served as Canada’s flag bearer at the Paralympics’ Opening Ceremony. With his 14th medal, he became Canada’s most decorated Winter Paralympian, surpassing the late Para-alpine skier Lana Spreeman, who amassed 13 medals in five Paralympics.
“I wasn’t aware of this record, but it is pretty cool,” McKeever said. “I think for me more than anything is this is a testament to our entire program. We’ve had so many great skiers leading the way for me with my brother, Robin who is now coaching us, and Colette Bourgonje. Now it is awesome for me to be a part of a new generation that has arrived in Mark [Arendz], Colin Cameron, and the young women like Emily [Young], Brittany [Hudak] and Natalie [Wilkie], who are ready to carry the torch. I’m so excited to be around all of them this week and to be there cheering them on.”
In the women’s standing 15 k freestyle race, his teammate Emily Young raced to fifth in slushy conditions, 2:21.3 behind Ekaterina Rumyantseva, a Russian designated as a Neutral Paralympic Athlete (NPA), in first. Anna Milenia, also an NPA, placed second (+1:21.0), and Ukraine’s Liudmyla Liashenko took bronze (+1:32.9).
Canada’s 17-year-old Natalie Wilkie, the youngest member of her team in her first Paralympic race, raced to sixth (+2:41.9). Eighteen-year-old Grace Miller, of the U.S., placed 10th (+20:02) in that race.
“That was really tough – a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be,” Wilkie said. “I’ve never raced over five kilometres before in these types of conditions. It wasn’t easy, but I’m happy I was able to push to the end.”
In his second Paralympics, Adicoff, a 22-year-old Bowdoin College skier, led the U.S. team on Monday in fifth place in the visually impaired 20 k skate. The result bested his previous Paralympic mark of sixth place in the 20 k classic at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
“First lap felt pretty good. We were right in it,” Adicoff recalled in a U.S. Paralympics press release. “I just got tired and started to slow down, ended up getting bumped from the podium.
“It’s pretty warm out, but the skiing stayed fast. It was awesome out there,” he added.
In the women’s visually impaired 15 k on Monday, Americans Mia Zutter and her guide Kristina Trygstad-Saari raced to eighth place, 13:09.0 behind Belarusian winner Sviatlana Sakhanenka and her guide Raman Yashchanka. Ukraine’s Oksana Shyshkova (with guide Vitaliy Kazakov) placed second (+8.2) and Mikhalina Lysova (with guide Alexey Ivanov) of the NPA placed third (+3:20.1).
“It was so much fun,” Zutter, 18, told U.S. Paralympics Nordic. “I competed here [in PyeongChang] last year, so I kind of had an idea of what to expect, but definitely the big ‘Games’ title made it a lot more nerve-wracking but also really fun.”
Paralympic action continues Tuesday with men’s and women’s middle-distance biathlon races, starting at 10:00 a.m. Korea time (7 p.m. EDT on Monday).