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McKeever 1st Paralympian to compete in Winter Olympics

Brian McKeever, a visually impaired cross-country skier from Canmore, Alta., will make history at the Vancouver Olympics when he becomes the first Paralympian to compete in the Winter Olympics.

Visually impaired cross-country skier's dream comes true

Visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever is about to make history.

The 30-year-old Canmore, Alta., native has been named to Team Canada, becoming the first Paralympian to compete in a Winter Olympics.

"I think this is a really neat opportunity for all of us," McKeever said in a press conference.

"The Paralympic world is not usually one that builds Olympic athletes, but it was a good opportunity for me … and I hope it shows that Paralympic athletes are training at the same sort of level as the Olympic athletes, despite their physical disabilities," he continued.

Cross Country Canada announced its roster on Friday, indicating McKeever had joined one of Canada's "most talented teams" of cross-country athletes.

The team includes six men and five women, with 2006 Olympic gold and silver medallists Chandra Crawford and Sara Renner on the roster.

McKeever has had his heart set on qualifying for the 2010 Olympic team since he came 21st at the able-bodied World Championships in 2007.

Tom Holland, high-performance director of Cross Country Canada, said McKeever accomplished his goal when he won the 50-kilometre race at the Canadian trials.

"This is truly one of the most talented Olympic Teams Canada has ever assembled, which is not only a testament to the continued strength and growth of the national program but also demonstrates what an incredible athlete Brian is and the enormity of his accomplishment," he said in a press release.

Racing solo

In Paralympic events, McKeever has raced with a sighted guide — his brother, Robin, a nine-time able-bodied Canadian national champion in the sport.

Robin also represented Canada at the 1998 Games in Nagano.

But in the Olympics, McKeever will race solo. When he does, he stays on course by trying to follow other skiers. If there's no one to follow, he relies on strong familiarity with the course.

Legally blind with Stargardt’s disease, McKeever has 10 per cent vision and all of it peripheral. He says it's like "seeing the doughnut but not the Timbit".

In Para-Nordic sports, McKeever has won countless events, racking up seven Paralympic medals. He said making the Olympic team will help demonstrate that there isn't always a significant gap between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

'Gap is not that big'

"It's important for people to know the Paralympics is as high as it gets,'' McKeever told Cross Country Canada. "It is the Olympic Games for people with physical disabilities, and I hope people will realize through my story the gap is not that big. Just because somebody has a disability doesn't mean they are not training hard or [are not] extremely fit."

Noting he would still compete in the 2010 Paralympics, which begin March 12, he said, "I think the Paralympics is a great product. We have something worth watching and I hope my story will bring more attention to that."

Five other disabled athletes have competed on the world stage but in summer sports. They include South African swimmer and amputee Natalie du Toit, and U.S. runner Marla Runyan, who is visually impaired.

Joining McKeever on Team Canada is a set of skiers more experienced than Canada's 2006 team.

"For many of our athletes, 2006 was their first trip to the Olympics," Holland said. "We have built on that experience and are now bringing confidence from a number of international medal-winning performances with us to 2010."

Also on the roster is Dasha Gaiazova, of Banff, Alta., who won three of the four Canadian Olympic trials races held in December.

Also on the women's side is Perianne Jones, of Almonte, Ont., and Edmonton's Madeleine Williams.

Jones came sixth with Renner at last year's world championships. Williams won the women's 30-kilometre Olympic Trials race last month.

New Canadian

Racing for the men's contingent will be Devon Kershaw, of Sudbury, Ont., who's captured three World Cup medals.

Also punching a ticket is Canmore's Ivan Babikov, 29, who captured a gold medal in the final stage of the 2009 Tour de Ski. He raced for Russia at the Olympics four years ago before receiving his Canadian citizenship in 2008.

George Grey, of Rossland, B.C., will also be competing. He won a bronze medal in the team sprint in last year's World Cup. The Vancouver Games will be his second Olympics.

Also on Team Canada is Canmore's Stefan Kuhn, who's attempting a comeback after three years away from competitive racing.

Rounding out the team is Alex Harvey, 21, of St-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que. Harvey shocked the world by reaching the podium twice in his first season on the World Cup circuit last year.

Canada's Olympic cross-country ski team will head to a training camp in Mount Washington, B.C., on Saturday before returning to Canmore for the 2010 Alberta World Cup, which takes place Feb. 5-6.

Olympic cross-country events begin Feb. 15.