WHISTLER, B.C. — It was a golden finish to Canada’s best Winter Paralympics ever.
Brian McKeever of Canmore won his third gold medal on the last day of the Paralympics Sunday with a victory in the one-kilometre cross-country sprint for the visually impaired.
It was an emotional victory for the legally blind skier who came into the Paralympics feeling the frustration of being denied the chance to race at the Olympics.
“We’re very satisfied with how it went,” said McKeever, who races with his brother Robin acting as guide. “Especially with the whole Olympic fiasco, it was nice to come back and erase the bad memories of this place and have a fun moment at the end.”
McKeever’s win upped Canada’s gold medal count to 10, the country’s best at any Winter Paralympics. The previous high was the six won at the 2002 Salt Lake Paralympics.
The overall medal count of 19 (10 gold, five silver and four bronze) is the country’s best Winter Paralympic haul. Canada won 15 medals at a Paralympics twice, in 2002 and 1998 in Nagano.
Canada also achieved its goal of finishing in the top three countries in gold medals won.
The International Paralympic Committee ranks its medal table according to gold medals.
Germany topped the standings with 13 gold among its 24 medals. The Russian Federation was next with 12 gold and 38 medals.
The Paralympic performance comes on the heels of Canada’s Olympic team winning 26 medals, the most at any Winter Games. The Olympic team’s 14 gold is also the most of any country at a Winter Olympics.
Canada sent a team of 53 athletes to the Paralympics.
The event drew about 1,350 athletes and team officials from 44 countries competing in five sports.
The Vancouver Winter Olympics saw 5,500 athletes and officials from 82 countries competing in 15 disciplines
The McKeevers made a calculated gamble in the final of the sprint event. Racing in rain and sticky snow conditions, they decided not to wax their skis and instead used pure strength to power their way to victory.
“The tracks were slowing down because they were getting wet,” Brian McKeever said. “That was part of what made the decision.
“We had a good strategy. We had to make the decision and believe in it 100 per cent.”
McKeever has Stargaard’s disease, which results in the loss of his central vision.
He qualified for the Canadian Olympic team in January and was poised to become the first winter sport athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
But the Winter Games ended in anguish for McKeever after the Canadian coaching staff decided not to start him in his event, the gruelling 50 kilometres.
McKeever came into the Paralympics anxious to put that disappointment behind them. The objective was to win three gold.
“That was the goal coming in,” said the 30-year-old. “It was not one we wanted to put out to people. You can never predict what the other competitors would do.
“We had to put down our best races to do it. We tried to play to our strengths.”
The brothers won the 20-kilometre freestyle and the 10-kilometre classic races.
Lauren Woolstencroft of North Vancouver, B.C., who was born without legs below her knees and no left arm below the elbow, led Canada with five gold medals in alpine skiing. That’s the most of any Canadian at a Winter Paralympics.
Viviane Forest of Edmonton, who competed in visually impaired skiing, also had five medals, including a gold, three silvers and a bronze.
Canada’s other gold came when Jim Armstrong led the wheelchair curling team to a 8-7 victory over South Korea Saturday.
Among the Paralympic success there was some heartbreak.
Canada’s sledge hockey team was upset by Japan in the semifinal, then suffered a stunning loss to Norway in the bronze medal game.
Visually impaired skier Chris Williamson came into the Paralympics the world champion in super-giant slalom and a podium contender in downhill, but failed to win a medal.
While thrilled with the medal haul, the Paralympic athletes say raising the profile of disabled sports is the biggest victory to come out of the event.
The alpine events draw huge, cheering crowds. Canada’s sledge hockey games were sold out and drew huge television audiences.
The closing ceremonies were broadcast live.
“The legacy will hopefully be we have a growth in the sport,” said Williamson, of Markham, Ont. “Hopefully we will inspire some people to get off the coach.
“To a lot of people, someone with six-per-cent vision (skiing) at over 100 kilometres an hour sounds silly. Hopefully, to somebody that sounds like a thrill.”