Sunday, October 26, 2008

Blind skier aims for Winter Olympics 2010

From the Toronto Globe & Mail in Canada:

CALGARY, Canada -- Brian McKeever never hesitates. He won't; he can't. He races against the best cross-country skiers on the planet in a permanent blur, with eyes that are 90 per cent blind and without a guide to warn him should someone fall in his path.

It is an arduous undertaking, as much an act of trust as a physical challenge, yet Mr. McKeever never falters. He wants to be the world's first Paralympics athlete to compete at a Winter Olympics, and his goal is 2010 and Vancouver/Whistler.

"Any Paralympian trying to make an Olympic Games is not looking for a sympathy vote," Mr. McKeever said. "I don't want a spot on the Canadian team because it's a good story."

Meet the man who rarely says "I can't" because he's too busy doing the things he can. He can compete on the World Cup Nordic circuit. He can ride his bike to the grocery store to shop. He can see just enough at the corner of his eyes to make out forms and bodies, and that's helped him realize just how fortunate he is, especially when it comes to skiing.

"There's a blind spot in the middle [of his eyes]," explained the 29-year-old resident of Canmore, Alta. "My peripheral vision is okay for spatial relations. It's a good blindness, in a way, for a sport like cross-country skiing. For a sport like darts or bowling, where you're aiming at a target, it's not so good."

Mr. McKeever lost his full sight to a genetic disorder at 18, and he made history last year by becoming the first Canadian athlete with a disability to ski at the world Nordic championships. If that wasn't rousing enough, he finished 24th in the 15-kilometre event.

"Actually, I'm now 21st because of some positive drug tests," he said with a laugh. "They keep coming like this and I'll be in the top 10 soon."

Mr. McKeever, of course, competes on the Para-Nordic circuit, where he uses a guide, his older brother, Robin, a former national team skier.

It is Robin's job to ski ahead and shout back instructions on how the course is playing - uphill, downhill, flat section ahead. The irony is that Mr. McKeever is completely on his own when he races full-out at an able-bodied World Cup, and from a mass start, too.

"Something happens in front of me, a crash, say around a corner in the middle of the trail, I might hit it," Mr. McKeever admitted. "It hasn't happened yet. I had a close call [in a Para-race]. One competitor crashed and his guide stopped. Robin yelled, 'Traffic.' We went in opposite directions and got around the skier, then we almost crashed into the skier's guide."

It was Mr. McKeever's remarkable showing at the 2007 worlds that convinced him he could make a run at the 2010 Olympics. Getting there won't be easy - the Canadian team's qualification process is difficult and drawn out and may not be finalized until the months before the Games - but that's the way Mr. McKeever prefers it; no free passes, only the best move on.

Much of Mr. McKeever's story has been chronicled before; how he is afflicted with Stargardt's disease, a genetic eye disorder that was passed along from his grandfather and father. What many people don't know is just how influential William McKeever was in refocusing his son's life.

When told his world was about to go on the fritz, Mr. McKeever lapsed into a funk. He figured his career as a promising junior cross-country skier was about to be junked. His father, who had lost his eyesight at 6 while growing up in rural Alberta, had a simple chat with his son.

"Once, in the early days when he was a little bit down, he said, 'That's genetics,' " William recalled. "I told him, 'You have to deal with it. I did. There are a helluva lot of worse things that could happen to you.' "

William's everyday actions were the true stuff of inspiration. He taught school and physical education for 29 years. He rode his bike everywhere, especially to the store for groceries. He hiked, cross-country skied even tried his hand at golf.

"My sister-in-law wanted to golf at her cabin [in B.C.], I said, 'As long as you keep track of my drives,' " William joked. "Of course, they all dribbled off the end of my club, except for one. I hit it and they couldn't find it. They claimed a raven ate it."

William's attitude and wry wit convinced Mr. McKeever not to give up on what he wanted most - to become a world-class cross-country skier. Robin helped by serving as a training partner and race guide. Robin, who does not have the gene that leads to Stargardt's, opted to work with his brother after failing to qualify for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Together, the McKeevers participated in the Salt Lake Paralympics and came away with two gold medals and a silver. These days, Robin is also a technical coach with the Para-Nordic team, while his brother is busy training and plotting an ambitious schedule of where to race and on what circuit.

"I'm happy about it," Mr. McKeever said when asked how he felt about other disabled athletes such as U.S. marathoner Marla Runyan and South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius pushing themselves for an Olympic berth. "For the Paralympic sports, it shows there's a point to it. ... It's not a sideshow any more. It's a competition. It's become more credible.

"To earn a spot on the Olympic team would be a tremendous accomplishment, and that's what I want."

Care to call this blind man's bluff?

Didn't think so.