Not even a virus will keep visually impaired skier Brian McKeever from targeting Canadian Paralympic history.
He is already one of the country’s best Paralympians, with seven gold medals and 10 medals overall in his career.
And though it's a long shot, with victories in all three of his cross-country races in the visually impaired category at Sochi, McKeever could become the only Canadian Winter Paralympian ever with 10 or more gold medals. Canadians Chantal Petitclerc, Michael Edgson and Timothy McIsaac all achieved such a double-digit feat in the Summer Paralympics.
McKeever’s health, however, could be a major issue. He woke up with a virus on March 2, saying “the timing couldn’t be much worse.” He withdrew the men’s 7.5K biathlon race on Saturday in Sochi.
But on Sunday, team media attaché Chris Dornan told reporters McKeever would be "ready to go" for Monday's race, which begins at 3 a.m ET (streaming live on cbc.ca/paralympics.)
McKeever has been able to focus solely on the Paralympics for about two months now.
That might sound like a strange statement — only two months?— to anyone unfamiliar with the remarkable athlete’s story.
In 2010, McKeever, who is from Canmore, Alta., was named to both the Olympic and Paralympic teams for Canada.
He didn't ski at both competitions, however. Less than two days before the 50-kilometre race, he was passed over by coaches in favour of four other athletes. It was a heartbreaking moment that caused regret and frustration in the months to come.
"I needed to re-focus and rediscover the fun [of competing]," he told CBCSports.ca in November. "It was certainly a big learning experience."
McKeever was again in the hunt for another Olympic qualification heading into the last race of the national trials in early January. This time the bid fell short entirely.
Hopes for a lifelong connection to para-sport
McKeever was just three when he started cross-country skiing. The 1988 Calgary Olympics lit the competitive flame within him; he began competing at age 12.
When he was 19, however, he was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, a genetic macular degeneration that ate away at his central vision.
Both his father and aunt were diagnosed as children, so McKeever thought he was already out of the woods.
"At the start of the semester I could sit at the back of the 400-person lecture theatre and read everything and by the end of the semester I was sitting at the front and couldn't read a damn thing," he said.
He only retained about 10 per cent of his vision, all of it peripheral, but within a couple of years he’d picked up his boots and pursued what would be the first of his Paralympic medals, in 2002 at Salt Lake City.
His guide in Sochi will be Erik Carleton, a longtime friend with whom he won two gold medals at last year’s Paralympic nordic championships in Sweden. McKeever’s older brother, Robin, himself an Olympian in cross-country skiing, has retired as his guide and is now a coach for Cross Country Canada.
'I can be fairly hard on people around me in wanting to be as good as I can be' - Brian McKeever
McKeever takes pains to get across that while the Paralympians are lauded for their perseverance and ability to overcome odds, the guides are unsung heroes.
“I can be fairly hard on people around me in wanting to be as good as I can be, and I think a lot of top athletes have that,” he said.
McKeever has maintained that competing in Sochi was always part of his plan, even if he had skied at the Vancouver Olympics. He plans on competing as long as his body cooperates, maybe even through to the 2018 Paralympics in South Korea.
At 34, he recognizes the end of his career may come about not by choice but because his body gives up. He’s already broken a rib and his left arm; he rarely runs anymore for training due to chronic shin splints.
Whenever his days as an elite athlete pass, McKeever hopes to stay close to the sport and the Paralympic movement.
“I enjoy what it takes and the process, and also bring along the younger guys and try and mentor them.”
He’s already helped coach up athletes with impairment in Japan, where his grandparents were born before emigrating to Canada.