Visually impaired skier draws international attention

VANCOUVER — The world’s attention turned to Brian McKeever as he arrived at the Winter Olympics on Tuesday.

VANCOUVER — The world’s attention turned to Brian McKeever as he arrived at the Winter Olympics on Tuesday.

Eurosport, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Agence-France Presse, Reuters and the Japanese daily Sankei Shimbun were among the international media that came to hear the story of the visually impaired cross-country skier who is about to make history as the first winter athlete to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

McKeever, 30, lives in Canmore and trains there at the nordic centre, one of the legacies of the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. He’ll ski the 50-kilometre race on the final day of the 2010 Games at Whistler Olympic Park and possibly other events if a teammate becomes ill or injured.

In doing so, he will narrow the perceived gap between athletes with a disability, and those without.

McKeever was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, an inherited macular degeneration, as a teenager. He has less than 10 per cent vision and what he does have is peripheral.

For the international crowd at Tuesday’s news conference in Vancouver, he described his vision as a doughnut without the Timbit and called it “flashbulb eye” with a fuzzy blob in the middle of his vision.

Five Paralympians have competed in the Olympics, but all have been summer-sport athletes. South African swimmer Natalie du Toit was the buzz of the Beijing Summer Games in 2008 when the amputee raced the open-water swim.

Domestic interest in McKeever was piqued when he won a 50k trials race in December on his home track and met the criteria to make Canada’s Olympic cross-country team. But once he was officially named to the squad Jan. 22, requests from around the world came fast and furious.

“Basically name any major newspaper in any country and they’ve called,” said Chris Dornan, the cross-country team’s media relations director. “Internationally, it’s global.”

McKeever answered questions Tuesday on how he felt when he was diagnosed with the disease that had also claimed the vision of his father and aunt. He told assembled media he walks or rides his bike to the nordic centre because he wasn’t able to get more than a learner’s driver’s permit before his diagnosis.

When he races able-bodied events, McKeever explained how he tries to follow another skier of equal ability to use as a guide.

Sankei Shimbun journalist Michiya Matsuo was doubly interested in McKeever because the Canadian athlete’s maternal grandparents are Japanese and spent time in an internment camp in Canada during the Second World War.

“I’m quite interested in Mr. McKeever’s story because he has Japanese ancestry,” Matsuo said. “His grandparents had gone through an internment camp in Canada, which is unknown in Japan. We are very knowledgeable about the story in the United States. We didn’t know much about the Canadian story.

“He is drawing big attention from the international community and the Canadian audience. There is a sense of pride even for Japanese.”

Paris-based AFP journalist Elodie Le Maou was unable to get an interview with McKeever prior to the Games. She was pleased to speak to him at Tuesday’s news conference, and in French no less as McKeever speaks the language well.

“We love the story of Brian and the way he tried to do his best,” she said. “I heard about him in France. Nordic skiing is a very difficult sport. I’m very impressed by his story and what he has done. I hope maybe he will win something at the Olympic or Paralympic Games.”

The latter is likely to happen during the Paralympics in March as McKeever has won seven Paralympic medals during his career. His older brother Robin, an Olympian in 1998, serves as his guide in Paralympic races.

McKeever acknowledges he has little chance of an Olympic medal on Feb. 28, which is the same day as the men’s hockey final. But his unique double will still draw wide-spread attention.

“Once he qualified for the Olympics, we both sat down and said ’this is no longer a nice Canadian cross-country ski story,”’ Dornan said.

“He knows his role. He’s embraced it. Any Olympic hero, or Paralympic hero, understand the role and accepts it. Brian understands this is an opportunity for him to showcase to the world, that the Paralympics and the Olympics are no different.”

The five summer Paralympians who have also competed in the Olympics are South Africa’s du Toit, American runner Marla Runyan (visually impaired), Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka (born without a right hand and forearm), Italian archer Paola Fantato (polio) and New Zealand’s Neroli Susan Fairhall (paraplegic), who was also an archer.

While McKeever wants to be treated like any other athlete at these Games, he knows he’s a symbol of overcoming a physical disability to compete at the highest level in the world.

“We all understand that this is important,” McKeever said. “Whether or not I want to be the centre of attention is beside the point. The story is what it is and I’m excited that there is attention on cross-country skiing because it is so important.

“It’s not traditionally known as a Canadian sport I suppose. Any time you’re competing with hockey that’s difficult.”

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