Powering down the homestretch and with the finish line in sight, Brian McKeever pulled to the outside of American Jake Adicoff and sailed past. He glanced once over his left shoulder to ensure he was safely in the lead.
Canada’s cross-country skiing legend will remember Paralympic gold medal No. 15 as a lot of run — if not a bit hard on the nerves.
“It was exciting. But stressful for an old man,” McKeever said with a laugh.
The 42-year-old from Canmore, Alta., executed a near-perfect race strategy with guide Russell Kennedy. The sizzling sun and 15 C heat had turned much of the track to mush, save the outside lane on the homestretch because of the shade of the grandstand.
“It all worked out, we knew what we needed to do in the last 300 metres, and Russ made an excellent move to get up alongside the Americans. And then we could block them out of that lane, and we just moved past,” McKeever said.
The medal was No. 19 of his illustrious Paralympic career, and a highlight on a strong day for Canada’s cross-country ski team. Natalie Wilkie won her second gold medal of the Games, while Collin Cameron raced to his second bronze.
Canada is third in overall medals through five days of the Games with 16, including seven gold. China leads with 31. Ukraine has 19 medals, including six gold.
McKeever is Canada’s most decorated Paralympian and is making his final Games appearance a remarkable two decades after his debut in Salt Lake City.
“The sprint is our toughest event to win. The older you get the less pure speed you have left,” said McKeever, who has a beard that’s more salt than pepper these days.
The British broadcasters calling Wednesday’s sprint race marvelled at how much McKeever had left in the proverbial tank.
“Oh, he’s got plenty in reserve,” one said over the race’s final few seconds. “Is he tired? Well, he says he is, but he doesn’t look like it.”
McKeever crossed in three minutes 19.5 seconds to edge Adicoff by 0.8 seconds. Zebastian Modin of Sweden won the bronze.
The Canadian has one race — perhaps two if he’s a part of Canada’s relay — remaining. But there’s no time to celebrate just yet.
“We’re trying to enjoy it,” McKeever said. “But it’s still stressful, it’s still a job. We have a job to do that finishes on Sunday at the closing ceremonies, so we’re still very much focused on the tasks every day of testing skis or preparing for the races.
“But that’s part of the fun too, is those strategies and trying to execute a good race. But yeah, I think we’re certainly taking a little bit more time in between the events and even after them to, to try and enjoy it, and enjoy what the process was to get here.”
McKeever has visual impairment caused by Stargardt’s disease, an inherited degenerative condition that also claimed his father’s vision. He started to lose his eyesight at the age of 19. He has some peripheral vision, but no central vision — he likes to tell people he can see the donut, but not the Timbit.
A victory on Friday would tie McKeever with Gerd Schoenfelder of Germany for the most titles by a male winter Paralympian (16).
Wilkie, meanwhile, raced to gold in the women’s standing sprint with a thrilling kick of her own. Picking up speed down the final hill, the 21-year-old from Salmon Arm, B.C., sling-shot into the final stretch past Vilde Nilsen, winning in 4:05.1, exactly three seconds faster than the Norwegian silver medallist.
“I started off in fourth place, and I was kind of concerned I wouldn’t be getting a medal at all,” said Wilkie. “But the way the race played out, I was able to catch two skiers, and was behind Vilde by quite a bit heading into the last downhill.
“I think it was really my super fast skis that pulled through for today. The wax techs did a great job. I caught up to her at the beginning of the finish shoot, and it just turned into this sprint for the finish.”
Wilkie, who skis with one pole after losing fingers on her left hand in a woodworking class in high school, said the victory was sweet revenge after narrowly losing to Nilsen in a sprint to the finish four years ago in Pyeongchang. She has five career Paralympic medals.
Cameron, a 33-year-old from Bracebridge, Ont., was third in the sitting cross-country sprint, covering the 900-metre course in a time of 2:46.3 for his fifth career Paralympic medal.
“This is the race I came here for,” Cameron said. “I had some big expectations coming in. This is the most fun event we do, and I really wanted to win this, but I’m happy with third. All of my competitors here are the best in the world, so it was great to go out there, race the best and see what happens.”
China’s Zheng Peng and Mao Zhongwu finished one-two.
Canada’s wheelchair curling team snapped a three-game skid with a pair of victories. They beat Great Britain 6-3 and Estonia 9-3.
“To have two wins today, it feels like we’re on a roll again,” said Dennis Theissen, second on the Canadian team.
The early game featured a scary moment when Great Britain’s second David Melrose fell from his chair in the fourth end. He was carried off the ice on a stretcher and taken to hospital with a shoulder injury.
“We just hope that Dave’s all right,” Canadian skip Mark Ideson said. “Of course, it’s a distraction when somebody gets hurt. You never want to see that happen. We just had to regroup, and refocus. Once we heard he was OK, it was easy to turn it back on.”
Canada, third at 6-3, meets Norway in its final round-robin game on Thursday, with a victory ensuring a spot in the playoffs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 9, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had the wrong number of Paralympic titles for McKeever in the long headline. He has won 15, not 14.