March 12, 2014, SOCHI, Rus (ISN) – Brian McKeever is certainly capturing the world’s attention in Sochi, Russia. And it is not just because he skied to his ninth Paralympic gold medal on Wednesday in Sochi, Russia.
McKeever and guide, Graham Nishikawa, ploughed through the field and more than 30 centimetres of fresh snow to win their second gold medal of the week in spectacular fashion in the visually impaired sprint races at the Paralympic Winter Games.
Leading all qualifiers in the head-to-head heats with the top-12 athletes, the two Canadians handily advanced to the final where the 12-time Paralympic medallist faced the biggest adversity of his career.
Stacked against two Russians, and a Swede in the final, the 30-year-old Nishikawa (Whitehorse) appeared to have led McKeever (Canmore, Alta.) through the cluttered pack of guides and athletes into clear trail until the unthinkable happened near the 200-metre mark.
A Russian skier stepped on McKeever’s pole – sending the 34-year-old airborne and onto his backside – before bouncing back up and hunting the leaders, and his ninth career Paralympic gold medal down.
“Wow, that was stressful,” sighed McKeever at the finish. “It wouldn’t be right for me to tell you what I said in my head, but once the cuss words were out, the only thing you can do is get back up and race.
“I thought we were clear, but that is normal and it happens in sprinting when you are all fighting and tight. Everyone is going flat out. It is intense and everyone is at their limit. We are just fortunate it happened in the first 200 metres and not at the end so we had time to catch up.”
After taking a deep breadth, Nishikawa took control, putting the throttle down and commandeering the Canucks back into contention in the action-packed one-kilometre sprint race.
“When I saw him go down, I immediately panicked and just thought ‘OH NO! Not now,” said Nishikawa. “It wasn’t until we got back up around the Russians and had the Swedes in sight that I felt a huge relief.”
“What a set of wheels on Graham today. That was impressive,” said McKeever. “The snow was so heavy today. He basically towed me up that hill and got me around the Russian roadblock out there and gave us a chance. It is not how we planned things, but that was a pretty awesome day.”
Sweden’s Zebastian Modin hung on for the silver medal, while Russia’s Oleg Ponomarev outraced his countryman for the bronze.
Adding to the dramatics, it was the first time Nishikawa had guided his friend, and training partner, on his own in international competition. After racing together over the last decade in Canada, McKeever recruited Nishikawa into his training group this fall with the goal of bringing two guides to the Paralympics for the first time ever.
Earlier this week, Nishikawa, who races able-bodied both domestically in Canada and on the World Cup circuit, shared guiding duties with Erik Carleton to lead McKeever to his first gold of the 2014 Games. Recognizing the stress the warm weather, and heavy snow conditions was putting on the guides for the long-distance races, the innovative Canadians leveraged both guides – switching at the midway point. With McKeever dropping into third place, Nishikawa stepped in to blaze a trail to the gold medal step of the podium.
Carleton’s name was on the start list so he was the only one to receive a gold medal. But on Thursday, Nishikawa will get his due and receive a gold medal of his own.
“It feels absolutely awesome,” beamed Nishikawa. “I said earlier this is a whole new world for me. I’m so impressed by everything. This whole experience has been amazing and I just wanted to do whatever I could to be here and help Brian. We have been friends for a long time so this is very special.”
From sunny t-shirt weather, to pouring rain, to dumping heavy snow on Wednesday, Mother Nature is sending the world’s top Para-Nordic wax technicians into a daily frenzy at Laura Stadium.
“These conditions are definitely stressful on the wax techs,” said McKeever. “Every day they basically start from ground zero based on the conditions. We had amazing boards today and the guys deserve a lot of credit. We were so fast on the downhills which really got us back into the race today.”
The victory brings McKeever’s career medal haul to 12 at the Paralympics, including his nine gold. If he can chalk up one more victory this week he will become the first Canadian Winter Paralympian with at least 10 gold medals, and third Paralympian in Canada overall to accomplish the feat.
A handful of other Canadians also competed in the sprint races. Chris Klebl, of Canmore, Alta., qualified for the men’s sit-skiing heats, but did not advance to the final. Robbi Weldon, of Thunder Bay, Ont., along with her guide Phil Wood, of Canmore, Alta., also had their day come to an end in the semifinals of the women’s visually impaired category, while Paralympic rookie, Brittany Hudak of Prince Albert, Sask., could not advance past the women’s standing semifinals.
Other Canadians that did not qualify for the heats included: Ottawa’s Margarita Gorbournova and her Regina-based guide, Andrea Bundon, in the women’s visually impaired race.
Louis Fortin (Fredericton, N.B) did not qualify in the men’s standing class, Saskatoon’s Colette Bourgonje also competed in women’s sit-skiing, while Quebec City’s Sebastien Fortier, and Yves Bourque (Becancour, Que.) also did not qualify for the men’s sit-skiing heats.
Following a day off on Thursday, the final biathlon competition of the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place at the Laura Nordic Stadium on Friday.
For more information and complete results, please visit the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games web site at www.paralympic.ca.