Visually impaired skier Brian McKeever one step closer to securing Olympic spot

Brian McKeever has done what he needed to do to make history. Now it’s up to the bureaucrats.

Visually-impaired paralympian Brian McKeever

CANMORE — Brian McKeever has done what he needed to do to make history. Now it’s up to the bureaucrats.

The visually-impaired cross-country skier from Canmore, Alta., won Tuesday’s 50-kilometre Noram race on his home course at Canmore Nordic Centre.

Cross Country Canada now considers McKeever a candidate to race that distance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.

If he makes the Olympic team, the 30-year-old would become the first winter athlete to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as the first Canadian to accomplish the double.

“It’s out of my hands now,” McKeever said Tuesday after crossing the finish line. “The goal was to try and win this particular race. I’ve prepared all year for it, even four years for it. I figured this was my shot, the 50k race.”

He won in two hours 21 minutes 8.5 seconds. Brent McMurtry of Calgary was second in 2:22:20.9 and Kevin Sandau of Calgary was third in 2:22:40.4.

Five athletes have competed in both Paralympics and Olympics and all of them have been summer-sport athletes: South African swimmer Natalie du Toit (amputee), American runner Marla Runyan (visually impaired), Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka (born without right hand and forearm), Italian archer Paola Fantato (polio) and New Zealand’s Neroli Susan Fairhall (paraplegic), who was also an archer.

The national cross-country ski federation will name its complete Olympic cross-country team in January.

Canada will field a minimum team of 12 athletes on the 2010 Olympic team. World Cup team members Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, George Grey, Ivan Babikov, Chandra Crawford, Perianne Jones and Sara Renner have all pre-qualified to be named to the team.

Canada can enter a maximum four men in the 50k, but it’s unlikely Harvey, Kershaw, Grey and Babikov will all want to race that event, according to high-performance director Thomas Holland.

“You have a minimum and maximum team size and you have to look at your priorities and fill everything,” Holland said. “You take the best out of each event and after you’ve done that, you can look and see what your team looks like and are there holes to fill?”

McKeever has won seven Paralympic medals, including four gold, with his older brother Robin as his guide. He also competed at the 2007 world championship with able-bodied athletes and finished 24th in the 15k.

Robin, 36, raced in the 1998 Olympics and finished eighth Tuesday, just over six minutes behind Brian on Tuesday. It was training with Brian for the Paralympics that brought Robin out of retirement and back into competitive racing.

“If I’m not winning, he’d better be,” Robin said. “I’m pretty stoked about that. It looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me to get my stuff together for the Paralympics.”

McKeever has Stargardt’s disease, an inherited condition of macular degeneration that also claimed his father’s eyesight. His vision is less than 10 per cent and all of it is peripheral.

“For all the Canadians, I say I see the donut, but not the Timbit,” he explained. “I have a blind spot in the centre, but my peripheral vision is 100 per cent. The light was a bit flat today so that hurt me a bit.

“It was a matter of being safe on the downhills and going as hard as I could on the uphills.”

Brian hopes he’s proving there isn’t much of a gap between Olympians and Paralympians.

“I would hope that will send that message,” he said. “We’ve got a good product at the Paralympic Games and it’s good competition. It’s tight racing and everybody is training the same as their able-bodied counterparts.

“With a visual disability, the body is still 100 per cent so I can push it pretty hard on the uphills. It shows we’re in top physical condition as well and hopefully people will come out and watch the Paralympics in 2010 in Vancouver.”

Colette Bourgonje, Brian’s teammate on the Para-Nordic team, gave him a hug from her wheelchair before he stepped onto the top of the podium Tuesday.

“I think it will increase exposure at the Paralympics,” she said. “There’s certain athletes that can’t do both, but all the B3 athletes have the opportunity so they should go for both.”

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