Para cross-country skiing

For retiring Paralympic great McKeever, the work proves more rewarding than his 19 medals

For Brian McKeever, it was never about the awards — and there were a lot of those. The retiring Canadian Paralympic great said the motivation over a 20-year career spanning six Games always came from within.

Canadian cross-country skier set for final race of decorated career on Friday

Canada's Brian McKeever smiles after winning gold in the men's visually impaired cross-country sprint event at the Beijing Paralympics, his sixth and final Games. (Zhe Ji/Getty Images for International Paralympic Committee)

Brian McKeever, 42, owns 15 career Paralympic gold medals.

On the night of his most recent title, 21-year-old Natalie Wilkie claimed her third.

Afterwards, Wilkie laughed.

"I don't think I could ever match your record," she said to McKeever, Canada's most decorated Winter Paralympian.

McKeever wasn't so sure.

"I said, 'Well, that depends. You started much younger than I did.' 

"I said don't worry about that anyway. It's just about going out and having fun. And your career will be as long as you want it to be and that's it," McKeever recounted in an interview with CBC Sports.

It's a message McKeever, who said Beijing 2022 will be his last Games, practised over 20 years and six Paralympics.

The plan paid off to the tune of 19 total medals, including all those golds. He became the first Canadian to be selected to both the Paralympic and Olympic teams at Vancouver 2010, though he was ultimately left on the sidelines in the latter.

WATCH | McKeever uses burst to win sprint gold:

Brian McKeever adds to his legacy with a 15th Paralympic gold medal

7 months ago
Duration 13:59
Canada's most decorated Winter Paralympian, Brian McKeever of Canmore, Alta., won the men's visually impaired sprint cross-country for his 15th career Paralympic gold medal and 19th medal overall.

Beijing is shaping up as his golden goodbye. He's won every individual race at each of his past three Paralympics. And he can make it four straight in his final individual race on Friday at 9 p.m. ET.

But it was never about the awards for the Canmore, Alta., native.

"The motivation's always come from within. It's always been about trying to push myself to be just a little bit better each year than I was the last and experiment with the training, and that's what I like to do," McKeever said.

For the past 20 years, McKeever relished in the work. The spotlight every four years was nice, and he doesn't deny enjoying the competition, but it was the daily grind that kept him coming back for more.

He said that was the key to his stunning longevity, and that those who prioritize medals normally don't stick around as long.

"When you wake up and it's pouring rain and it's four degrees and you have to go for a five-hour session, if your motivation is only about those external things — you're extrinsically motivated — you're not going to be able to do the work anymore," he said.

If McKeever lost a step at 42, it would only be reflected in his margin of victory. The dominance speaks for itself.

WATCH | McKeever opens his Paralympics with gold medal:

Canada's Brian McKeever claims 14th Paralympic gold medal of his illustrious career

7 months ago
Duration 7:18
Brian McKeever of Canmore, Alta., won gold in the men's visually impaired 20-kilometre cross-country event. It's his 14th career Paralympic gold medal and 18th medal overall.

McKeever competes in the least severe classification of the visually impaired category. He once compared his sight to those constant fuzzy spots you get from staring into the sun for too long.

Through the 2014 Games, brother Robin McKeever served as his guide. And while Robin is still a part of the Canadian Para Nordic team, Russell Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa now share the role.

Kennedy told CBC Sports recently that their main goal for Beijing was to have fun.

Previously, McKeever said he viewed the Paralympics as a business trip.

"I always joke that it's like making a big presentation to the bosses. It's not a lot of fun while you're doing it but if it goes well then you celebrate after. It's really a lot of stress and it's a lot of focus and there isn't a lot of time for fun," McKeever said.

He said he's managed to accomplish that goal in Beijing.

Plans to continue in sport

He also said that he began contemplating retirement as far back as 2014, but that he knew Beijing would be his final Paralympics just after the 2018 Games.

"The reality was, Sochi [2014] I was basically done. But I then didn't really have anything else to do so I went four more years and then in Korea [2018] I realized I hadn't made any plans so I went four more years," McKeever said.

Finally, over the past four years, McKeever acknowledged that training became more difficult, even despite spending 41 hours on skis for his 40th birthday.

McKeever, left, and Kennedy, right, celebrate after winning their second gold medal in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The routines that used to consistently put him in peak shape were now less reliable. The injuries piled up.

But although his days as an athlete are coming to an end, McKeever plans to stick around the sport — possibly as a coach or mentor, or even in ski waxing. He'll also continue to help push forward the Paralympic movement, which he said has come a long way since his 2002 debut.

One way he hopes for that to happen is increased exposure.

"That gives a lot of young kids with disabilities that representation where they suddenly see that there's a path forward to high-performance sport, if they choose to take it, and it gives them the chance to dream of that sport career just like their buddies without disabilities," he said.

McKeever was also sure to mention his younger Canadian teammates, the next wave of medallists like Wilkie who aspire to his lofty heights.

He hopes to race in relays on the final day of the Games alongside some of those teammates, though that decision has yet to be made.

For now, all eyes will be on McKeever in his final individual event. He plans on approaching it like any other race.

"I expect to be focused and with a plan to go forward and a plan for the race. And that's it. It's a job and the job isn't over until the closing ceremony," he said.

"Right now we've been paid for four years to do a job. Job's not over."

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