Brian McKeever's 'relentless' drive leads to historic Paralympic gold

Brian McKeever is a big fan of the line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption that advises us all to "get busy living or get busy dying." No matter the challenge or setback, McKeever clearly chose the former on his way to becoming Canada's most decorated Winter Paralympian.

Canadian flag-bearer builds on storied career with record 14th medal

Canada's Brian McKeever cemented his legacy as Canada's most successful Winter Paralympian with his 14th career medal. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

Brian McKeever is a big fan of the line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption that advises us all to "get busy living or get busy dying."

No matter the challenge or setback, McKeever clearly chooses the former on his well-beaten path to the Paralympic podium.

Twenty years after learning he was losing his eyesight, the Canmore, Alta. product claimed gold Sunday — alongside guides Graham Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy — in the men's 20-kilometre cross-country ski freestyle race.

The medal is the 14th of his storied career, making McKeever Canada's most decorated Winter Paralympian; the late Lana Spreeman won 13 medals in para-alpine skiing between 1980 and 1994.

McKeever's gold medal in the men's visually impaired 20km cross-country skiing event gave him 14 career Paralympic medals, the most in Canadian history. 1:13

Chalk it up as another example of McKeever getting busy living — so busy, in fact, that he didn't realize until recently that the record was within reach.

His Paralympic resume now includes 11 gold, two silver and one bronze, with more chances for medals to come in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"These guys did a great job of towing me today," McKeever marvelled after the race. "They took care of me the whole way."

McKeever credits his guides and wax team for his performance during the 20km cross-country race and touches on how excited he is to watch the rest of Canada compete 1:42

Unrelenting drive

With more than a sprinkling of grey in his beard, McKeever is one of the older athletes on the World Cup circuit at age 38. But he's still dominant, even as he battles men nearly 20 years his junior.

His performance Sunday looked clinical from the start. With Nishikawa leading the way, McKeever powered through the deep, soft snow at a blistering pace. Midway through, Kennedy drew in for a lap in relief of Nishikawa and then the two guides changed places again.

McKeever never lost a step — although Canada's flag-bearer at these Games admitted to thinking he might.

"The last lap was very hard," said McKeever. "I was hurting at the end."

On the final stretch, someone yelled "Brian, you're a minute ahead." And indeed he was.

McKeever stopped the clock in a golden time of 46 minutes, 2.4 seconds. Yury Holub of Belarus seized silver in 47:07.5, while Thomas Clarion of France took bronze in 47:24.4.

Brian McKeever always dreamed of making it to the Olympics. However, after losing his eyesight, he took a new path to the Paralympics, and is now on the verge of becoming Canada's most decorated winter Paralympian. 1:43

Pushing through setbacks

At age 18, McKeever cried upon learning he had Stargardt disease, which was already wrecking his central vision; he likes to say he can see the doughnut but not the hole. 

Already an accomplished skier at the time, he switched over to the Canadian Paralympic program and found a new path.

At age 30, he cried once again upon learning of the coach's decision to leave him on the sidelines for the men's 50-km race at the 2010 Vancouver Games, thus quashing his dream of racing at both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Down and dejected, he shook off the heartbreak to win three Paralympic gold medals on the Whistler course.

Four years later, he cursed loudly upon falling in the men's visually impaired one-kilometre race in Sochi. But he picked himself up and squeezed by two Russians and one Swede to seize gold anyway.

Not done in Pyeongchang

Fall down. Get back up. Prove the doubters wrong.

It's simply a way of life for McKeever, who fell in love with the Olympics at the 1988 Calgary Games.

"I always wanted to be part of it,"  he told CBC Sports before arriving in Pyeongchang. "Having an older brother [Robin] who went to the Olympics in 1998 in Nagano was just another step along the way. Little brother always wants to be like big brother.

"I followed a career path similar to his and then I lost my eyesight.… I realized I could have a career in this sport anyways. That's all I ever wanted to do. I wanted to be a skier."

As the years rush by, McKeever's vision is getting worse. He realizes he needs to be more careful crossing the street just in case he doesn't see or hear the cars coming at him.

But despite his vision, his age and the fact he has said this could be his final Paralympic Games, McKeever's golden performance Sunday leads one to wonder if he'll be back for the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

"I don't know about that," said Nishikawa, 34. "We still have a really busy week ahead of us. But with Brian, nothing would surprise me. It's amazing to be around someone so great at something. Every year, he brings something more. He's just relentless.

"I'm in awe even just hanging out with the guy."

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