'It's meant everything': Role of guides for Paralympic athletes goes beyond field of play
More than just racing involved in job of guide for visually impaired athletes
When Mac Marcoux injured his back and moved to Mont-Tremblant, Que., for two months of rehab, guide Tristan Rodgers was right there with him.
When Brian McKeever decided he wanted to do 41 hours on skis for his 40th birthday, guide Russell Kennedy was along for the ride.
At Beijing 2022, both Kennedy and Rodgers have paved paths to the podium, skiing ahead of the visually impaired Paralympic athletes.
But the role of guides goes well beyond the field of play.
"That's the name of the game in guiding is showing that commitment and being there for the athlete," Rodgers said.
Not only did Rodgers, a 23-year-old from Ottawa, join Marcoux in Quebec — he rehabbed right along with him, a task he said was "difficult."
Still, he says that's just part of the job.
"[Marcoux] doesn't have a driver's license. He's not self-sufficient to get from the hotel room to the gym every day. Being there for him in the pre-season and through the injuries has really tested our commitment towards each other and towards the sport," Rodgers said.
"And I think that without that, we wouldn't have had the success that we had."
WATCH | Rodgers guides Marcoux to silver medal:
Marcoux, 24, competes in the least severe classification of the visually impaired category in Para alpine. He has some peripheral vision, which works as an aid during races.
The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native already owned five Paralympic medals over two Games heading into 2022. But Beijing represented his first working with Rodgers, who began working with Marcoux in June 2018.
Rodgers was an aspiring Olympic skier, but realized around that time it'd be difficult for him to gain enough speed to achieve that dream. Guiding, then, provided an alternate route to competing for Canada and sticking around the sport.
"It's cheesy, but it's meant everything. For the last four years, this has been my life, this has been my career, my job, my whatever you want to call it. It's been all and everything that I have and to be able to pour my heart and soul into something for four years, It's been so rewarding," Rodgers said.
Rodgers wears a bright orange suit as he skis ahead of Marcoux, and the two are connected by headset. Before a race, they go through the course and name each section. Rodgers communicates those names to Marcoux during the race, giving Marcoux an idea of what's ahead of him.
However, a crash in their second race left Marcoux with a lower-body injury and unable to return to competition.
For Rodgers, there's a sense of responsibility when that happens.
"I think that you can't avoid it, even if it's your fault or not your fault. The first thing you feel is like, 'Shoot, I messed up,' because you are in front, you are dictating the line that you're skiing and obviously in your head right after that happens, you think of the 100 other different scenarios that could have happened to avoid that," he said.
"But at the end of the day you kind of get some perspective and you look back at it 360 [degrees] there's nothing that I would have done differently."
'Not easy to stay in front of Brian'
It's an issue that Kennedy, as guide for the great cross-country skier Brian McKeever, hasn't had to face.
Kennedy, who shares the role with Yukon's Graham Nishikawa and sometimes hopping in and out of races, not only has to keep pace, but stay ahead.
"It's not easy to stay in front of Brian, so they only had a few people in Canada that were really fast enough and I was just fortunate to be asked. I thought it was a really cool opportunity, so I jumped on it. And ever since then, it's been really, really fun for me," Kennedy said.
WATCH | Kennedy leads McKeever to 15th gold medal:
He took the role on in 2016, taking over from McKeever's brother Robin. Kennedy, the 30-year-old from Canmore, Alta., competed at both the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics. He wasn't selected to the 2022 Olympic team.
His introduction to McKeever's skiing style came quickly.
"Still to this day, one of the hardest races was the sprint race in Pyeongchang. Never in a million years would I have wanted to ski a race the way that we did, and it hurt so bad. At the top of the first climb, I was like, 'I don't know if I can make it to the finish line,'" Kennedy said.
Indeed, McKeever and Kennedy made it to the finish line — ahead of everyone else, of course.
As a cross-country guide, Kennedy helps out in all aspects, including ski waxing and testing.
"And then when the time comes, go really freaking hard and race and kind of break wind and set pace for Brian to try to get another medal," Kennedy said.
But while the hardware is nice, it's the relationship that Kennedy cherishes most. McKeever even took on a mentorship role, helping Kennedy in his own athletic pursuits.
"I get to see all these amazing people find this joy and passion in the sport that I love. So it's kind of meant this whole group and community of families that I've found here," Kennedy said.