Cross-country skiing

Paralympic gold is just the beginning for Canadian teen Natalie Wilkie

It's a tad premature to call Natalie Wilkie the next Brian McKeever, but the 17-year-old cross-country skier announced her presence with her first-ever Paralympic gold medal, earning praise from the Canadian icon in the process.

'She can have a whole career of great success,' says Brian McKeever

Canadian teenager Natalie Wilkie surprised the competition — and herself — by winning her first-career Paralympic cross-country gold. (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

It's a tad premature to call Natalie Wilkie the next Brian McKeever.

After all, the para nordic skier from Salmon Arm, B.C. is only 17 and in Grade 11. She's not even eligible to vote, never mind legally drink champagne to celebrate winning a ski race. 

McKeever, on the other hand, is 38 and Canada's most decorated Winter Paralympian with 13 gold, two silver and one bronze. He celebrated his first victory in Pyeongchang by using his golden bauble as a coaster for a nice glass of red wine.

But on Friday night in South Korea, Canada watched the past and the future collide at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre. First, McKeever cruised to his third victory of the 2018 Winter Games with gold in the 10-kilometre visually impaired race with guides Russell Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa.

That victory was expected, but what came next was not.

Still a wide-eyed rookie, Wilkie beat all comers in the women's 7.5 km standing race, collapsing beyond the finish line as she soaked it all in.

At 17, she is a Paralympic champion.

Wilkie finished atop the podium in the women's standing 7.5km classic, to claim her first Paralympic gold medal, adding to the bronze she won in the 1.5km sprint. 0:56

"I think this is crazy," Natalie's mom Karin Huster told CBC Sports in the finish area. "Everybody is giving me hugs. I can't even believe my girl is competing at this level."

She isn't just competing — she's winning. On Wednesday, Wilkie won bronze in the 1.5 km sprint. But she really announced her arrival to Canada — and the world — on Friday with the first of what promises to be many Paralympic titles on her resume.

"I didn't think I would get gold at all," Wilkie said. "I was imagining when I was pushing down on my pole that I was elbowing my brother. That really helped."

She shared the podium with fellow Canadian Emily Young, who won bronze.

"There's nothing left in the tank," said Young, of North Vancouver, B.C. "It was all left out there. And If not, I sweat it out … I only started skiing three-and-a-half years ago, so it's pretty amazing to be at the Paralympics and bring home a medal."

Wilkie and Young spoke with CBC's Josh Dueck after capturing gold and bronze in the women's 7.5km classic. 1:37

'Sky is the limit'

Wilkie was already on the snowy path to becoming an elite skier before a horrific shop class accident in 2016. She lost four fingers on her left hand after they became caught in the jointer machine when she was making a wooden sign.

Only two weeks later, she was back training with her able-bodied ski club, determined to keep chasing her dreams instead of mourning the loss of her fingers.

"At the time, that made sense," Huster said. "It helped her achieve a normalcy in her life. The training became her focus.

"Natalie is the type of person who has had difficult times. But she just gets up again and starts from the bottom and works her way to the top. She doesn't linger in the down periods."

She doesn't linger in the downs, because there's just so much to do.

Like a young McKeever, her goal is to one day also compete in the able-bodied Olympics; she competes with one pole in para-competition, but bandages her left hand up and uses two poles against able-bodied competitors.

"She works hard, so the sky is the limit for somebody like that," McKeever said. "The fact is she is already starting at a high level. If she wants to keep going, she can have a whole career of great success."

McKeever spoke with CBC's Josh Dueck after winning gold in the men's 10km classic and touched on how important team work is to success. 2:43

On Friday, she crossed the finish in 22 minutes, 12.2 seconds, narrowly beating out Ekaterina Rumyantseva, a neutral Paralympian from Russia (22:13.8). Young stopped the clock at 22:13.9.

Next up for Wilkie is returning home to Salmon Arm to resume her Grade 11 studies and, perhaps eventually, take steps towards earning her driver's licence.

"She's going to have to return to school after all of this," Huster said. "That's the most important thing from a mom's perspective."

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