The Long Distance Ski Championship

Coach McKeever on Canada’s Unprecedented Paralympic Success and the Future

Author: 
Gabby Naranja

Canada’s 2018 Paralympic cross-country and biathlon team at the Alpensia Biathlon Centre on the last day of the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

The 2018 Winter Paralympic Games was one for the books for Team Canada. Its athletes racked up a total of 28 medals in PyeongChang, South Korea, surpassing its previous record of 19 in Vancouver 2010.

Of those 28 medals, 16 came from Cross Country Canada’s (CCC) Para Nordic skiers (which includes both cross-country and biathlon). In comparison, five of the 19 medals Canada won in Vancouver were a product of a para-nordic team made up for two athletes: Brian McKeever and Colette Bourgonje.  

Following the 2010 Games, Brian McKeever’s brother and guide at the time, Robin McKeever, became CCC’s Para-Nordic head coach in the fall of 2010. Around the same time Robin made the transition from athlete to coach, CCC experienced budget cuts that impacted its para-nordic program.

“When the program came to me as head coach, it was a, ‘Hey, you’re going to have to take this and rebuild it, somehow,’ starting point,” Robin McKeever said during a recent phone interview.

Brian McKeever follows guide Graham Nishikawa during the men’s visually impaired 20 k freestyle at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.  (Photo: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Over the course of eight years, McKeever, 45, has guided the program into a international powerhouse, as evidenced by its unprecedented success and increased presence in PyeongChang.

“It was a little bit of luck finding the right athletes at the right time, then it’s … working hard to keep them together as teammates who want to work and push each other to achieve their goals,” he explained.

The mindset seemed to work well for his team; with 14 athletes, it was seven times the size of that in Vancouver. And its athletes brought home more than three times the hardware it did in 2010.

“It’s attributed to having some pretty phenomenal athletes in the program, first and foremost,” Robin said, regarding the program’s surge in success. “Secondly, it’s attributed to having an awesome team supporting the athletes all working together … from medical staff to the physiologists to the development coaches to all of our wax team. They’re great people who love to be together. ”

Four women and 10 men comprised the 2018 Paralympic team roster, with two of the men being Brian McKeever’s guides, Russell Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa. Brian, 38, has long been a longtime para-nordic force, and in PyeongChang he left no room for doubt that he pervades as the cross-country king. A visually impaired athlete, he won all three cross-country races in PyeongChang: the 20-kilometer freestyle, the 1.5 k classic sprint and the 10 k classic. He also raced to bronze in the 4 x 2.5 k open relay.

With his performances in PyeongChang, Brian became Canada’s most decorated Winter Paralympian of all-time. Lana Spreeman, a para-apline skier, previously held the record at 13 medals, which she accumulated over the course of five Paralympics.

Brian currently holds 17 Paralympic medals from five Paralympics, 13 of which are good.

“I wasn’t aware of this record, but it is pretty cool,” Brian said at the time, according to a Canadian Paralympic Committee press release. “I think for me more than anything is this is a testament to our entire program. We’ve had so many great skiers leading the way for me with my brother, Robin who is now coaching us, and Colette Bourgonje.

“Now it is awesome for me to be a part of a new generation that has arrived in Mark [Arendz], Collin Cameron, and the young women like Emily [Young], Brittany [Hudak] and Natalie [Wilkie], who are ready to carry the torch. I’m so excited to be around all of them this week and to be there cheering them on,” he added.

Also in PyeongChang, Canada’s Mark Arendz, Natalie Wilkie, Collin Cameron, Emily Young, Brittany Hudak, and Chris Klebl also earned their share of hardware on the Alpenesia ski trails.

Prior to Pyeongchang, Arendz had competed in Vancouver and then Sochi, coming away from the 2014 Paralympics with silver and bronze finishes in biathlon events. Four years after he earned his first two Paralympic medals, Arendz tallied six more in South Korea, the most medals ever won by a Canadian at a single Winter Paralympics.

Canada’s Mark Arendz en route to bronze in the men’s 1.5 k standing classic sprint at the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. (Photo: Scott Grant/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Arendz showed versatility and strength, as his medal winning performances came in both the biathlon and cross-country events over the course of nine days in PyeongChang. He won a gold in the 15 k standing biathlon event, followed by a silver in the 7.5 k standing biathlon, silver in the 4 x 2.5 k mixed relay, along with three bronze medals, one in the 12.5 k standing biathlon, one in the 1.5 k standing sprint and one in the 10 k standing competition.

“Every time I stepped on the podium this week, I kept thinking I want to hear ‘Paralympic Champion’ and then my name announced,” Arendz, 28, told Cross Country Canada at the time, according to a press release. “I wanted nothing more than to hear my country’s anthem played. I’ve seen the maple leaf on top of the podium three times this week, but to finally have it behind the top step of the podium for me is an amazing feeling.”

Canada’s success story in South Korea did not end there. In her debut Paralympics, 17-year-old Wilkie scored big, earning bronze in the standing sprint, silver in the mixed relay, and gold in the 7.5 k classic in PyeongChang.

The youngest on her team, Wilkie was a skier before she lost four fingers on her left hand in a shop-class accident two years ago. 

“Natalie was a medalist in able-bodied competition at Junior Nationals the year before,” Robin explained. “We knew that she was a strong skier that had an acquired disability and we knew that it was possible for her to race at the Paralympics one day if she wanted to. It’s a learning process and a real mental process to get over your injury and for her it was then also turned into an opportunity.”

Yet another individual medalist in multiple events in PyeongChang, Cameron, now 30, brought his team another first. With his third-place finish in the 7.5 k sitting biathlon race, he became Canada’s first male sit skier to medal in biathlon. He later earned two more bronze medals, one in the 15 k and the bronze another in the open relay.

Until four years ago, Cameron had been a sledge hockey player. He happened across his hometown’s para-nordic club by chance over the internet, joined that club and was later recruited to the national team.

“Being a part of the open relay team with Brian, and his guides Graham [Nishikawa] and Russell [Kennedy], was something really special and I will never forget it,” Cameron wrote in a previous email to FasterSkier. “Getting my third Paralympic medal with those guys was pretty cool … just being a part of this amazing and successful team of athletes, techs, and coaches has to a favourite moment.”

Natalie Wilkie (r) and Emily Young at the 2018 Paralympic medal ceremony with their gold and bronze medals in the women’s 7.5 k standing classic race in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo: Dave Holland/Canadian Paralympic Committee)

Notably, every member of Canada’s seven-member Para-Nordic World Cup Team claimed a medal in  PyeongChang, with Young taking bronze in the 7.5 k classic standing for her first Paralympic medal followed by silver in the mixed relay, Hudak notching bronze in the 12.5 k standing biathlon, and Klebl helping the mixed relay to silver.

Since the end of last season, CCC has undergone some changes that are affecting its Para-Nordic program. Both CCC’s para-nordic and able-bodied programs are tied under one organization, and Nic Lemyre was recently hired on as the new high-performance and development advisor for both programs. Previously, Mark Edwards served as the Para-Nordic high-performance director.

“Cross Country Canada came under some very strategic shifts with the prior organization,” Robin explained. “We’re not sure exactly how that’s going to play out. That is still in the works. We get to deal with that as it comes around, but it’s about putting a sport pillar and business pillar under two different ones and so we’re working hopefully closer with the able-bodied program.”

In terms of how CCC’s budget cuts are expected to affect its Para-Nordic program, CCC CEO Shane Pearsall expected the amount going to para-nordic to be “about the same as last year”. Asked how much of CCC’s roughly $4 million-dollar budget will go to the Para-Nordic national team’s elite programming, Pearsall estimated that amount to be about $600,000 dollars (comparable to between $500,000 and $600,000 for able-bodied national team programming).

In Robin’s opinion, working closer with the able-bodied program means the transference of ideas and potential to strengthen each other through teamwork and communal outreach. Expanding to skiers of all abilities and levels may take work from the ground up, as well as the top down.

“We need to be working together to rebuild that whole system,” Robin said, pointing out that currently, CCC’s able-bodied A-team consists of one member, Alex Harvey.

This season’s Canadian Para-Nordic World Cup Team includes eight members, plus another six on the development team.

“The whole focus of the [Para-Nordic] program is about the process,” he added. “For the athletes to have their best race on a given day, the team has to also provide the best skis on a given day, the best feeds, say or whatever that requires. It’s really more about the process.”

— Alex Kochon contributed reporting

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