Picture trying to ski after staring directly at the sun. Bushes blend into the snow. Turns become an illusion; one second they are there and the next they are not. If it sounds somewhat impossible, consider it’s the field of vision Canadian Paralympic cross-country skier Brian McKeever has had for the past 19 years of his professional cross-country career.
“If you stare at the sun for a long time and turn away, you get these fuzzy spots. Well for me, the fuzzy spots don’t go away,” McKeever said of his vision, according to his Canadian Paralympic Committee bio.
Diagnosed with Stargardt disease at the age of 19, the loss of vision in no way slowed McKeever’s desire to ski — a sport he started when he was 3 — or his success. In 2010, he made history after being named to both Canada’s able-bodied Olympic squad and its Paralympic team. Though he did not race at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Whistler, he competed in the 2010 Paralympics there, coming away with three gold medals.
Three years prior to that, he raced against able-bodied athletes in the International Ski Federation (FIS) World Championships 15-kilometer freestyle in Sapporo, Japan, and finished 21st. Over the course of four Paralympics, he has accumulated 13 medals, 10 of which are gold. A Paralympic World Championships competitor since 2003, McKeever holds 19 world titles. He also competed in last year’s U.S. nationals in Midway, Utah, finishing 12th in the men’s 30 k classic mass start and 23rd in the men’s 15 k freestyle.
When it comes to racing, the difficulty often is not ensuring McKeever, 38, is fit, but that his guides are fit enough to not be left behind. His brother Robin McKeever, now head coach of Cross Country Canada’s Para-Nordic Ski Team, served as Brian’s guide from 2001 through the 2010 Paralympics. Following Robin’s transition to becoming head coach, Erik Carleton, Brian’s childhood friend growing up in Calgary, Alberta, joined the team as Brian’s new guide.
“I don’t think the guides get nearly as much recognition as they should,” McKeever said after winning the 2013 World Championships 20 k with Carleton as his guide, according to the Canadian Paralympic Committee. “It is tough being the guide because you are out front and not skiing your own race. He needs to be out front and controlling the pace. When I need him to hold off he has to, and when I need him to increase the pace he needs to do that as well.”
A former World Cup skier and Cross Country Canada (CCC) senior development team member, Graham Nishikawa joined Brian and Carleton as a second guide a few years later, in the leadup to the 2014 Paralympics. The two have guided Brian in the years since, but with Carleton’s departure before the upcoming 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, a new member joined Brian’s crew: Russell Kennedy.
Kennedy, who races for Team R.A.D., which is in partnership and based out of Canmore Nordic, was approached by Robin this spring and offered a spot on the Para-Nordic Team as one of Brian’s backup guides. The offer also came with the opportunity for Kennedy to join the team at its on-snow training camp in New Zealand this summer, as well as the elevation camp it held at Mammoth Mountain in Mammoth Lakes, California, this fall.
“They’ve got a lot of resources and a lot experience, so it’s pretty awesome for me,” Kennedy, 26, said on the phone in October.
“I’ve been on my own schedule this year because the Team R.A.D. is mostly younger athletes and … I have to do my own thing because I’m going for the Olympics,” explained Kennedy, last season’s overall NorAm winner who earned Period 1 World Cup starts with CCC’s able-bodied team. “So it actually works better for me to be training with Brian because he has similar goals as me. Those camps were both really well placed with volume load and elevation load for my training plan so that really was another thing that drew me to the program.”
Kennedy, whose father is Canadian and mother American, was born in Truckee, California, and grew up skiing with Far West Nordic. According to The Tahoe Weekly, he took advantage of his dual citizenship and moved to Canada fresh out of high school in 2010 to train with the Alberta World Cup Academy. In the years since, he has accumulated 18 World Cup starts (including two this season). After attending both Para-Nordic camps this summer, Kennedy plans to head to PyeongChang for the Paralympics, but is hoping to qualify for Canada’s Olympic squad as well.
With that as one of his primary goals, Kennedy departed for Gällivare, Sweden, on Nov. 11 and competed at the FIS season-opener there before diving into World Cups in an effort to meet CCC’s Olympic selection criteria. Later this month, he’ll head home to Canada to get ready for NorAm trials Jan. 6-10 in Mont Sainte-Anne, Quebec.
In the Gällivare FIS races, Kennedy raced to 43rd in the classic sprint and 48th in the 10 k freestyle.
“It is always a bit hard with sprints, but the goal was to close really well,” Kennedy wrote in an email after that sprint. “I felt strong and was much more happy with this sprint than my Frozen Thunder qualifier.”
He did not race the following weekend’s World Cup opener in Kuusamo, Finland, due to illness.
Kennedy, who has spent all of his senior skiing years in Canada, has had some experience guiding, but this will be his first year at McKeever’s level of racing.
“It’s hard for Para to find a guide that can match Brian’s pace because he’s quite fit, as I’ve been finding out more and more,” Kennedy said.
McKeever is also based out of Canmore and the two coordinated training sessions as frequently as they could this summer and fall, Kennedy explained.
“He’s a really really fit dude and there’s not too many people who can hold that pace. They basically have to be on the national team,” he continued. “The guy that’s guiding is, I guess, a bit less difficult than just being fit enough to guide him.”
With the start of the World Cup race season well underway and the 2018 Paralympics exactly three months away, the primary goal for Kennedy right now is to simply stay fit.
“[The Paralympics] are so far away that I can kind of peak for the [World Cup] and then rebuild if I need to,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to have to play it a bit by ear and see what happens. But we both trust in each other’s fitness so I think it will work out.”
(Note: Neither Brian McKeever nor Robin McKeever could be reached for comment.)
Gabby Naranja considers herself a true Mainer, having grown up in the northern most part of the state playing hockey and roofing houses with her five brothers. She graduated from Bates College where she ran cross-country, track, and nordic skied. She spent this past winter in Europe and is currently in Montana enjoying all that the U.S. northwest has to offer.