Brian McKeever's blind determination

He was set to make history, but the Paralympic athlete won't compete tomorrow (UPDATE)

Bill McKeever

Photograph by Chris Bolin

UPDATE: The Canadian cross-country team is not entering Brian McKeever in the 50-kilometre mass-start classic race on Sunday. Coach Inge Braten expressed regret, but stated that they could only put forth four names and the other four members of the team have had strong top-10 finishes during these Games. The coaches asked if they could enter a fifth competitor considering it was their home country but were denied.

Stargardt’s disease, the most common form of inherited juvenile macular degeneration—a form of blindness—started its work early on Bill McKeever. As far back as Grade 1, Bill, who grew up on a farm east of Calgary in the early ’50s, found he could not see the blackboard from one end to the other. Too much chit-chat with a pal in the back of class earned him a spot in the front, a move that did much to improve the view. For a while he tried glasses. “Didn’t do any good,” says Bill. “They just sort of put lenses in front of you and figured maybe you’re stupid because you can’t read farther down the chart.” Stargardt’s, which begins by wiping out the central vision, then erodes the peripheral, remained undiagnosed until he was 15 and a big-city optometrist said he’d get more help from the CNIB than any doctor.

Bill later became a schoolteacher, corralling three decades’ worth of kids despite retaining just 10 per cent of his vision (it’s now closer to six). With his wife, Jean, a school librarian, he had two sons: Robin, then Brian six years later. Both would go on to secure spots on Canadian Olympic cross-country ski teams—Robin at Nagano in 1998, Brian in Vancouver—circumstances all the more miraculous since their legally blind dad taught the pair how to ski and that one of them inherited Bill’s blindness. This year, 30-year-old Brian, with just 10 per cent vision, all of it peripheral—“it’s like seeing the donut, but not the Timbit,” he likes to say—becomes the first winter-sport athlete ever named to both Olympic and Paralympic teams. He’ll likely compete in the men’s 50-km on Feb. 28.

Brian, whose fine, almost elfin features belie an unmistakable confidence, downplays the achievement. “All of us have something that we need to overcome, whether it’s psychological, whether it’s physical,” he said during the unveiling of the cross-country team. No doubt he’s learned a few things from his coaches and teammates. But little compares to the lessons gleaned from the father with whom he shares his disease, and from the older brother who began as his idolized Olympic sibling, morphed into the partner who guided him to four Paralympic gold medals, and who finally became a competitor. “It’s shifted from me being the older brother, the wise old one, the athlete teaching the younger brother,” says Robin, 36. “Now he’s the one who’s all professional with his athletic career. I’m doing whatever I can to keep up.”

From his dad, Brian learned an almost recklessly nonchalant acceptance of his disability. Bill’s sight never had much impact on his skiing: “You just have to be careful you don’t run into somebody else going slow,” the 65-year-old retired gym teacher says. Like Brian, he continues to ride a bicycle. “I ride a lot of bike paths,” he says, “but I like the open road and park lanes. So far there’s been no blind guys killed by vehicles yet. It’s all been sighted ones.”

Robin and Brian have worn skis for almost as long as they’ve walked. Yet their relationship remained limited. “It was more of a younger, pain-in-the-butt brother that I had to deal with,” says Robin. At 24, by then an old hand at European competition, Robin went to Nagano. Canada achieved just middling cross-country success there, and he never did better than a 48th-place finish in any individual event. Still, Brian’s Olympic aspirations were set. The siblings drew closer. When Brian set out to qualify for the junior national team at 18, Robin lent him his equipment. “That was this huge moment where he believed in what I was capable of,” says Brian, who learned a year later that he’d inherited his father’s disease. Yet he continued training alongside sighted skiers and maintained competitive finishes, going as far as the Senior National Championships in Canmore, Alberta, in 2000, when he secured fourth place in the 15 km. Before long, he was legally blind. When a coach for the Paralympic team saw him inspecting posted race results—Brian can make out the printed word but must bring the reading material up so close to his face he may as well be tasting it—he asked if he’d ever thought of joining the team. After some initial hesitation, Brian agreed.

Tapping Robin as his guide—visually impaired skiers compete alongside a sighted partner—made sense. By then a nine-time Canadian national cross-country champion, “Robin was just getting ready to maybe wind up his racing career,” says Bill. Adds Robin: “He asked, you know—‘Would you be interested in racing with me?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure, let’s give it a try.’ ” They went on to win four gold, two silver and a bronze at the 2002 and 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. Robin says their success derives from the indifference to decorum fundamental to siblingdom. “I remember getting into a fight with him in front of the coach after the first race at Salt Lake”—which didn’t go well, says Robin. “We were verbally abusing each other like brothers can do, where a guide probably wouldn’t get away with it.” The next day they achieved one of their largest margins of victory.

Brian returned to the able-bodied circuit in 2007, finishing 24th in the 15-km World Championship event at Sapporo. But if the goal was to qualify for both the Paralympic and Olympic teams, it did not always go smoothly. Last spring, while competing in the 50-km event at the Canadian championships in Duntroon, Ont., Brian missed a corner and fell, breaking his shoulder. The accident—he calls it “a blind-guy mistake”—ended his season. Things finally came together in December, when, at a 50-km Olympic trial in Canmore, he surpassed his brother and some of Canada’s best cross-country skiers to finish first. That got him a spot on the Olympic team, but not Robin. “On the first lap, I heard Robin was the leader,” he says. “My hope was that we’d be one-two. And then he just couldn’t hold it. For a bit, in the middle of that race, I actually felt fairly sad.”

Though Robin will compete alongside Brian in Vancouver’s Paralympic events, he will first watch from afar. “It’s a double-edged sword as far as him kicking my butt in qualifying for the Olympics,” he says. “I can talk about it candidly. And I’m really stoked for him. But at the same time it’s something I’m just starting to get used to dealing with.”

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