WHISTLER, B.C. – Brian McKeever will never forget his Olympic disappointment, but the Paralympic gold medal he won Monday helped remind him why he keeps racing.
McKeever’s victory in the 20-kilometre cross-country ski race for the visually impaired gave Canada its first gold medal of the Winter Paralympics. The win came in an event where McKeever had finished second in his two previous Paralympics.
“That meant a lot,” said McKeever, who was almost 42 seconds faster than the second-place finisher. “That was the one we were waiting to win.
“It’s been eight years in the making. That’s the one we really wanted.”
Monday also saw Canada earn gold and bronze in alpine skiing.
Lauren Woolstencroft won the women’s standing slalom, while Karolina Wisniewska was third.
Woolstencroft, of North Vancouver, B.C., had a two-run combined time of 1:51.97 seconds, putting her almost seven seconds ahead of Germany’s Andrea Rothfuss.
Vancouver’s Wisniewska was timed in 1:58.84
Woolstencroft, 28, was born without legs below the knee and no left arm below the elbow. She started skiing at age four and racing at 14.
He qualified for the Canadian Olympic team in January and was poised to become the first winter sport athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
But the Winter Games ended in heartbreak for McKeever after the Canadian coaching staff decided not to start him in his event, the gruelling 50 kilometres.
“It makes it a lot easier,” McKeever said of Monday’s gold. “We are never going to forget what happened but this helps us move on.
“We still have more racing to go and more things to look ahead to.”
McKeever and his brother Robin, who acts as his guide, finished the race in 51 minutes 14.7 seconds. Nikolay Polukhin of Russia was second in 51:55.6 while Vasiki Shaptsiaboi of Belarus was third in 52:22.5.
Hearing the cheers of a hometown crowd made the gold even more special.
“Friends and family are here,” McKeever said. “A home crowd supported us through this whole journey. Right through the Olympics they were behind us and really supporting us.
“It’s a way we can give back for all the support we had.”
Canada was also victorious in wheelchair curling Monday after hammering Japan 13-2.
The victory pushed Canada’s record to 4-0 with a game against Sweden scheduled for later in the day.
So far Canada has won six medals (two gold, three silver, one bronze) at the Paralympics.
Canada’s goal is to finish among the top three countries in gold medals won. The International Paralympic Committee ranks countries on the basis of gold medals.
The McKeever brothers, who are both fighting colds, made a hard race look easy. They took the lead on the second lap of the four-lap race.
“You are never sure if you are going to get it until it’s all over,” said Brian McKeever. “You have to push right through.
“It was hard but we had a good plan. We stuck to the pace we wanted to do. It made the difference today.”
McKeever has become the face of these Paralympics. His race drew a large, vocal crowd and the most media of any event so far at the cross-country venue.
The 30-year-old from Canmore, Alta., understands part of the attention is because of what he didn’t do as much as for what he’s done.
“At least the attention is here at the Paralympics,” he said. “This is what we wanted. We wanted to raise the profile of the Paralympics. We wanted to bridge the gap between the Olympics and the Paralympics.
“I think we are doing that. This is going to help the Paralympics grow and that is going to help this competition get stronger for many years to come.”
McKeever hasn’t given up the dream of racing at both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2014 at Sochi.
“We will be trying,” he said. “I want another shot at the Olympics for sure.
“We are already starting the plans to see how we get there, making sure the training will be right and making sure we can work together for Sochi.”
John Furlong, head of the Vancouver Olympic Games Organizing Committee, called McKeever’s victory perfect.
“It means the laws of natural justice are prevailing and things are unfolding the way they should,” said Furlong, who attended the race.
“Given what happened during the Olympic Games it couldn’t fall to a more worthy person than him to be the first gold medallist for us. It’s the perfect story, really.”
McKeever has Stargaard’s disease, a genetic disease that has reduced his vision to about 10 per cent, all of which is peripheral.
This is the third Paralympics for McKeever. He has won a total of five gold, two silver and a bronze.
Robin McKeever called the win “extremely satisfying.”
“I towed Brian as hard as I could in Salt Lake and we were silver,” he said. “In Turin I was sick for the 20-K and couldn’t guide Brian to my fullest. He missed the gold by about nine seconds.
“Coming in here, I feel we skied really well as a team and I feel really happy about it.”
Brian McKeever finished sixth in his first Paralympic race Saturday, the three-kilometre biathlon pursuit.
The brothers have three races left. The plan is to win least two more gold.
“We are not fully healthy,” said Brian. “Every day we are getting a little stronger.”