It was by a happy coincidence that Brian McKeever wore bib number 16 on Saturday.
The Canadian cross-country skiing legend won his 16th Paralympic gold medal, tying German alpine skier Gord Schoefelder for the most wins by a male winter Paralympian.
McKeever wrote the final golden chapter of his remarkable career, claiming victory in his final individual event at the Paralympic Games in Beijing with longtime guide and friend Graham Nishikawa. The 42-year-old from Canmore, Alta., has swept the podium in all three individual cross-country events for four straight Paralympic Games.
But it was never about making history for McKeever, more about taking it one run at a time and enjoying the journey.
“I never thought about (the record),” McKeever said. “And, to be perfectly honest, that wasn’t the point. It was just about trying to have a good day, and that’s what we’ve always done, we tried to have our best day. of the day. Performance on demand is very, very hard to achieve. And with the fact that we’ve been doing it for years… I’m proud of what we’ve done here. Especially as a group of aging veterans.
Canadian Natalie Wilkie won her third medal of the Games, a silver medal in the women’s 10 km cross-country race.
The Canadian team has 23 medals — eight gold, five silver and 10 bronze — and will finish third behind China and Ukraine. Canada will add at least one more to that total, a guaranteed gold or silver medal in para hockey on Sunday morning. The cross-country relay also has a solid medal chance. Canada’s medals will mark the second best Paralympic Winter Games in history, following 28 medals four years ago in Pyeongchang.
McKeever, who began losing his sight at 19 due to Stargardt disease, an inherited degenerative disease, covered the 12.5 kilometer course on Saturday in a time of 33 minutes 6.6 seconds. He and Nishikawa wore number 16 as the last skiers to leave the start line. They methodically separated the peloton in synchronized ski shots en route to victory.
Nishikawa collapsed after crossing the finish line.
“(McKeever) is in amazing shape. He definitely put me under the ground. I had my work cut out today and I was absolutely exhausted at the line,” Nishikawa said. “We’ve had such a long journey together so it was really special to be able to do it once again and I just wanted to make sure we had a good race today.
“Brian makes it look easy, but I’ve had a front row seat to see what he does, and it’s amazing. He works so hard. He’s so professional and he loves to ski. It was a fun day for me.”
Sweden’s Zebastian Modin, who won silver with guide Emil Joensson Haag in 33:59.1, praised McKeever for his huge contributions to cross-country skiing.
“Brian is amazing,” Modin said. “He’s been pushing ahead for so many years and showing what a para-athlete can do. He’s raised the standard of our circuit and para sport. We have to be thankful for everything he’s done for us. .”
Ukrainian Dmytro Suiarko and guide Oleksandr Nikonovych finished third.
McKeever’s historic victory comes almost to the day two years since the global COVID-19 pandemic exploded around the world, immobilizing Canadian athletes amid travel restrictions and training center closures.
McKeever said the pandemic made him appreciate competing in Beijing even more.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “You want to continue to be at the top, to keep the lifestyle that we have grown accustomed to, the travels, the experiences, the adventures and all of that is very, very near and dear to our hearts.
“We’ve always tried to enjoy these adventures, especially last year, two years ago without being able to travel through COVID. As much as you understand everyone is in this together, and we’re trying to keep our each other and doing our best, there was a mental hit for sure. It made us much more grateful… and we realize why we love him and what we’ll miss when we’re done.”
Wilkie, a 21-year-old runner from Salmon Arm, B.C., who won gold in the sprint and long-distance races earlier in the Games, took silver Saturday in 41.45 .3, despite a fall in the last part of the descent. The course had also turned to mush in the 14C heat at the Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Center.
“It’s unbelievable. I know it’s not gold, but I can’t believe it,” Wilkie said. “It was one of the toughest races I’ve ever done. Coming off the start line, I knew it would be tough because the snow felt like I was going through a meter of slush.”
Wilkie is skiing with a pole after losing four fingers on her left hand when she got stuck in a jointer in high school carpentry class. She now has six Paralympic medals, stepping onto the podium three times in a spectacular Paralympic debut in Pyeongchang at the age of 17, the youngest member of Canada’s team at these Games.
Oleksandra Kononova won the gold medal in 41:18.0, while her Ukrainian teammate Iryna Bui took bronze. Britany Hudak of Prince Albert, Sask., was seventh.
Collin Cameron of Bracebridge, Ont., already a double bronze medalist in Beijing, narrowly missed the podium in the men’s 10 kilometer seated standings, finishing fourth.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Michaela Gosselin finished fourth in women’s slalom as Canada’s top alpine skier on the day.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 12, 2022.