With so much of the conversation around sport dominated by who wins and who benefits, who loses, and the incredible lengths athletes and teams will put in to get on the podium or lift the trophy, talking to Brian McKeever is a kind of like stepping back in time.
McKeever is in Beijing about to compete in his sixth Paralympic Games. He’s not talking about wanting to win medals, although if history is any lesson he certainly will. He is already Canada’s most successful winter Paralympian and the most successful Para cross-country skier in the world with 17 Paralympic medals, including 13 gold.
Medals are “beautiful,” but they’re really for others to enjoy, McKeever says. For him, the reward is knowledge.
He wants to know how good he can be. What can he do if he pushes his body a little more, trains and races a little smarter, sets up his equipment a little better?
In short, can he make himself better today than he was yesterday? Answering that question, he says, is what has always driven him – from his first Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 to Beijing 2022, which he says will be his last.
“I never did this for medals. It was always because I wanted to see what my own limits were,” says McKeever, who began losing his sight in his late teens. “I wanted, every year, to try to improve a bit, to tweak the training to see if I could make something work a bit better.
“At the end of the day, if someone puts a medal around your neck, well, that’s fine too. But that wasn’t the reason. It was just trying to get that feeling of a great race on the right day.
McKeever is onto something big when he talks about his love of the sport and what success means to him, says Stephane Barrette, CEO of Nordiq Canada, the national body for cross-country skiing.
“Medals won by athletes, whether they have a disability or not, don’t mean much if the athletes aren’t doing something bigger with that medal,” he says. “The medal represents an aura on the athlete and attracts people’s attention. But then to really give meaning and value to the medal, you have to do something about it. And Brian has certainly always understood that and really taken on that role and that responsibility of acting as a mentor, an ambassador, not just for the sport, but for all kinds of human values that we embrace and promote.
Barrette acknowledges that’s probably not what Canadians are used to hearing from top athletes or sports leaders.
“In North America, most of the spotlight is on professional sports, so maybe it’s not something the general population is used to hearing very often. But the more we share this message, the more I think it helps develop our own sporting culture – a true sporting culture where our appreciation of sport goes beyond the number of medals we win at the Olympics and Paralympics.
As head of a national sports organization, Barrette is responsible for advancing cross-country skiing on all fronts, from grassroots development to increasing the number of elite medalists and ensuring a healthy sports culture. In all of these purposes, he would be hard pressed to find a better role model than McKeever. His incredible sporting achievements and bond with his brother, who was his first guide, even made their way into the Super Bowl commercial for Toyota, which brings the sport of cross-country skiing to Canada in uncharacteristic light.
But lately, because of the COVID pandemic, more Canadians have been getting into the sport.
Participation has stagnated for more than a decade, hovering between 50,000 and 55,000 members in Canada, according to figures from the sports body. But when the COVID pandemic hit, people looking for safe outdoor activities literally emptied the shelves of cross-country ski shops and club membership lists jumped 40% to 77,000. now they have stayed there.
“You hear so many people say they hate winter and yet this sport is a great way to get through the winter and make the Canadian winter a little more bearable, maybe even start enjoying it,” says McKeever.
Sport has always been a family affair in the McKeever household. His parents introduced him and his older brother, Robin, to the sport when they were children.
Brian started skiing at age three and was racing at age 12. Robin competed in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and after Brian was diagnosed with Stargardt, an eye disease that causes central vision loss, he became his brother’s guide. He guided Brian to his first 10 Paralympic medals. Now Robin is Canada’s para-Nordic head coach and his 18-year-old son, Xavier, is a rising junior cross-country star on track for the 2026 Olympics.
McKeever’s first race in Beijing is on Monday and his plan is simple.
“I want to do my best,” he says. “But it’s not because I want to hit a record or increase something or chase after a summer person (in the medal count) or anything. I know there are probably summer athletes with more medals, but good for them. And I imagine they didn’t do it for the medals either.