Pursuit (Skiing): Blind ambition

Bryan McKeever isn’t letting anything get in the way of his Olympic dream.

Cross-country skier Brian McKeever isn’t much of a sprinter. But put the 28-year-old Albertan on a long-distance course, where he can find his rhythm, and he’ll smoke nearly anybody in the country. On a good day, McKeever can blow by most of the top skiers anywhere. At the International Ski Federation’s world cross-country ski championships in Sapporo, Japan, last February, he ripped through the 15-kilometre course, finishing 22nd among 119 racers. Not bad for an athlete who’s legally blind.

McKeever has Stargaard’s disease, a condition that causes a growing blind spot in the centre of his view, meaning he now has only about 10% of normal vision. Able to see only peripherally, McKeever can’t spot sharp turns as quickly as his competitors, nor can he always see the ski tracks he needs to follow. On steep down hills, the tracks just disappear. And when snow falls on a course — as it often does — his poor visibility means he’s competing in virtual whiteout conditions. But none of that has stopped McKeever from fighting for a spot on Canada’s 2010 Olympic cross-country ski team. Since he also plans to compete in the 2010 Paralympic Games, McKeever could end up becoming the first Canadian ever to qualify for both events. But he isn’t concerned about making history. “What keeps me going is seeing what I can do for my ability,” says McKeever from his home in Canmore.

It’s hard to see how McKeever’s condition won’t hurt his Olympic aspirations. After all, even he believes the margin of error in his sport can be exceptionally narrow. For example, a couple of seconds can separate racers on a 15-kilometre race. Nevertheless, McKeever doesn’t view his disability as a hindrance. In fact, he says, “losing my eyesight was one of the best things that’s happened to me.”

As a kid growing up in Calgary, McKeever remembers his parents constantly asking him and his older brother Robin, “Are your eyes OK?” The boys had a 50% chance of developing Stargaard’s disease. Their father has it, and the condition is hereditary. Robin wasn’t affected, but Brian was diagnosed with the disease shortly after turning 19. McKeever recalls thinking at the time that his life was over. He wouldn’t be able to continue competing on the national junior cross-country ski team. It was doomsday. “I remember having this huge reaction later that day,” says McKeever. “I just sat down and burst out crying.”

But McKeever’s depressing thoughts didn’t last long. His father was a constant reminder that he could get married, raise kids and have a successful career. (Bill McKeever is a retired physical education teacher.) McKeever renewed his drive to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who competed at the 1998 Olympics in cross-country skiing. But a year later, when he was trying to get his body accustomed to increasingly demanding workouts, McKeever caught mononucleosis. For the first month of the illness, he was bed-ridden. When he finally could walk around, he was prone to falling asleep for four hours at a time during the middle of the day. The sickness eventually stretched four months, wiping out years of fitness McKeever had built up. “It was at that point that the eyes were starting to go, too, and I was thinking the deck is really starting to get stacked against me,” McKeever says.

McKeever didn’t quit the sport, although he was certainly tempted to. Instead, he reluctantly joined the Para-Nordic National Ski Team in 2001, even though he hadn’t fully accepted the idea that he had a disability. “Racing with the Para-Nordic team was almost like a joke for Brian at first,” says Robin. “He didn’t think he was disabled enough.” Although McKeever’s condition qualified him to compete, he initially raced without a guide. But it wasn’t until Robin became his guide that McKeever started consistently winning para-nordic events, even though the partnership got off to a rocky start. “The first day I was guiding him, Brian went off the course and crashed into a tree,” Robin admits.

The partnership has had much happier days since. McKeever won two gold medals at both the 2002 Paralympic Winters Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. (He also won a bronze in the biathlon, which combines skiing and shooting, at Torino.) But in between those years, McKeever suffered another setback. In 2005, he finished 51st in a domestic able-bodied race, when he was used to finishing in the Top 10. “What concerned me wasn’t the result, but how I felt,” he says, “I felt like I was going full blast, when the pace hadn’t even picked up.”

Shortly after that dismal result, McKeever began working with Dr. David Smith, the director of sports science at Canadian Sports Centre Calgary, located at the University of Calgary. The physician designed a training program for McKeever, and within months the skier’s performance bounced back. That comeback, along with the Paralympic wins, made McKeever believe more strongly in himself. Dave Wood, the national cross-country team coach, has also seen a change in McKeever over the years. “His condition has made his resolve stronger, not discouraged him,” he says.

McKeever will need all the resolve he can get to make the 2010 Olympic team. He figures he may need to crack the Top 12 at the world cross-country championships in 2009 and 2010 to be selected. Woods believes McKeever has a good shot at making the cut. “The only thing that could get in his way is if his sight took another deterioration,” Woods says. McKeever’s condition is degenerative, but even if his sight drops below the 10% he has now, its doubtful he’ll stop pursuing his dream. As he puts it, “We all have limitations that are either put on us or we put them on ourselves, like, ‘I’m not in that league,’ or, ‘I’m not ready for that step.’ But they’re not necessarily true.”