In December, Brian McKeever placed first in the men's 50 kilometre classic race during trials for the Canadian Olympic Nordic ski team. He beat the second place finisher by a minute and a half. Brian McKeever is legally blind.
The most decorated skier on the para-nordic circuit -- winning seven medals in various Paralympic games -- McKeever qualified for both the Olympic and Paralympic Nordic ski teams this year. However, the day before he was set to compete in the men's 50 kilometre classic race, a decision was made to cut him from one of the four Canadian spots and slot in another skier. The reasoning behind this is quite simple -- Canada was not looking for a top 30 finish, they wanted medals.
Blind or not, McKeever is an exceptionally skilled skier and amazing athlete. Outperforming his "fully sighted" teammates at trials this year speaks volumes about his ability. Granted, McKeever's highest finish at a World Cup event was 21st in the 15 kilometre free event in 2007 in Sapporo, Japan, but when it comes to a race as physically demanding as the 50 kilometre classic, there is far more to consider than previous placement. McKeever is absolutely at the top of his game and this was to be his only race of the games. Had he raced, he would have been well rested and physically and mentally prepared for competition.
The 50 kilometre course is a grueling distance covering some very difficult terrain and, considering that the other four Canadian athletes who competed -- Devon Kershaw, George Grey, Alex Harvey and Ivan Babikov -- had all competed in other events, by the time the 50 kilometre race came around, they were running pretty low on steam. The results speak for themselves: Kershaw (5th) and Grey (18th) were the only Canadian athletes to break the top 30.
The 50 kilometre is a difficult race for any athlete and when a racer has been giving there all for two weeks already the energy they are able to muster isn't as much as they would have had they not been racing the week before. Given his previous results, and the results of the racers in last weekend's race, it seems clear that McKeever could have easily matched, if not beaten, the results of his teammates.
All sorts of "inspirational" stories can come out of this about how McKeever never let his disability get the better of him and so on, but what it comes down to is that blindness has nothing to do with it. He's an athlete, born and bred, and has as much right to compete as any other athlete with Olympic ability. McKeever's spot on the Olympic team was not a "feel good" spot, it wasn't for good press and it wasn't to give anyone warm fuzzies for letting the blind guy play. The reason that Brian McKeever qualified for the Olympics is because he flat out knocked the socks off of everyone else.
For a racing decision to be made on World Cup placement alone is not fair for any athlete. Having only recently focused his energies on World Cup racing rather than para-nordic racing, McKeever may not have the world standings that his fellow Canadian skiers do, but his performance this winter has shown that if given the chance he certainly has the ability. His domination of the 50 kilometre race earlier this season has proven that he without a doubt has the skill and the physical ability to compete.