Canada’s Para-Nordic skiers put an exclamation mark on a stellar week at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships with a triple medal Sunday, bringing their medal haul to 10.
Brian McKeever and his guide, Graham Nishikawa, struck gold in the men’s visually impaired 20-kilometre cross-country classic-ski race. It was McKeever’s 20th career World Championship title. Mark Arendz gutted out his sixth medal of the week, winning the silver in the men’s standing distance race. The youngest athlete in the field, 18-year-old Natalie Wilkie, made it an even 10 in the medal standings for Canada, adding a silver of her own.
“It was a great day. Graham did such a great job guiding. He absolutely pinned it. It was a great team race for us and the techs in the room absolutely nailed the skis so that makes our job a whole lot easier,” said the 17-time Paralympic medalist. “It is so nice to win here at home. The Caledonia Nordic Ski Club and Prince George have done such a great job.”
Nishikawa (Whitehorse) and the 39-year-old McKeever (Canmore, Alta.) perfected their pre-race strategy, leading wire-to-wire in the individual start marathon where they powered their way up and down the hills of the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club. The Canadian duo clocked a winning time of 54:47.0.
“The course has long climbs so you can’t go full gas,” said McKeever. “We talked about technique for skiing on this terrain, and we put it together with a nice pace. Graham was on the pace right on the first climb.”
McKeever joined the team midway through the World Championships. He was in Monaco for the opening weekend where he was up for a prestigious Laureus Sport Award for Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability. Waiting to guide the legendary Paralympian, the veteran Nishikawa played a key role in the Canadian squad’s early medal charge, working with the young athletes and testing skis for the support team. Well rested, he had one goal in mind today – gold!
“I felt great and Brian felt great so today was pretty special for us,” said Nishikawa, who helped guide McKeever at the last two Paralympic Winter Games. “We were both on fire and had crazy skis so today was pretty special. It was a fun day to ski.”
The Canadian duo topped their biggest rival, Sweden’s Zebastian Modin, in the visually impaired category. The Swede stopped the clock at 58:02.2 for the silver medal. Norway’s Eirik Bye finished third at 58:10.2.
Jesse Bachinsky, of Kenora, Ont., and Simon Lamarche (Victoria), finished 10th at 1:12:01.6.
With McKeever away for a big chunk of the World Champs, Mark Arendz carried the torch for the Canucks, matching his historic six-medal pull from the 2018 Paralympics.
The 28-year-old from Springton, P.E.I. gutted out an impressive silver medal in the men’s 20-kilometre standing race.
Shattered at the finish, Arendz crashed to the snow after completing his fifth lap on the three-kilometre loop, stopping the clock at 54:21.4.
“I got stronger in each race as the week went on and felt great going into the race. After the relay I knew the classic-skiing was there,” said Arendz. “I fought through this race knowing my fitness will show by staying strong throughout the race. I did everything I could. In the end I earned a silver in yet another fantastic battle here at Worlds.”
Japan’s Taiki Kawayoke topped Arendz at the finish, winning the gold with a time of 54:01.9. Grygorii Vovchynskyi, of the Ukraine, finished third at 55:36.0.
It was the fourth silver medal of the week for Canada’s flag bearer at the Closing Ceremonies of the PyeongChang Games. He also had two bronze medals in biathlon competitions.
“Winning the silver in the relay was the high point for me this week,” said Arendz, who was teamed up with Natalie Wilkie, Emily Young and Collin Cameron. “Working together so well with that team – it was a fantastic result.”
Wilkie, of Salmon Arm, B.C., put the finishing touches to a memorable week in the women’s standing event. The inspirational teenager won the first individual World Championship medal of her career with a second-place time of 51:10.0 in the women’s 15-kilometre classic ski race.
“It was amazing. I needed that,” said Wilkie, who won a complete set of medals at her Paralympic debut last year. “I just pulled back for the first two laps, and then at the 9 kilometre mark, that was a distance I know, so I just went for it.
“It was so awesome out there today – hearing everyone screaming and cheering ‘Go Canada.’
I have an eight hour drive back home with my family, so I’ll be taking a hard nap.”
Norway’s Vilde Nilsen won the women’s standing race with a time of 50:36.7. Liudmyla Liashenko, of Ukraine, was third at 51:56.5.
Emily Young (North Vancouver) was fifth at 54:02.3. Brittany Hudak, of Prince Albert, Sask., was sixth at 54:03.8.
Earlier in the day, Canada’s Derek Zaplotinsky posted his third-straight top-five finish after completing the 15-kilometre men’s sit-skiing race with a time of 50:21.2.
Matching a fifth-place finish in the middle-distance cross-country ski race, the 23-year-old from Smokey Lake, Alta., was also a career-best fourth in the biathlon short distance race earlier this week.
Germany’s Martin Fleig won the men’s sit-skiing division with a time of 47:53.8.
Ethan Hess, of Pemberton, B.C. was 15h (1:00:02.1). Yves Bourque, of Bécancour, Que., was 17th (1:03:50.9).