Canadian Paralympic star Brian McKeever grew up without a television.
But days before the 1988 Winter Games opened in Calgary, his parents took their long-broken TV set in to have it repaired, and the cross-country skier’s Olympic love affair began when Canada marched into the stadium for the opening ceremony.
“You don’t necessarily understand what the Olympics are at the time, but if it’s important enough for mom and dad to get the TV fixed, it must be pretty big,” said McKeever, who was in Grade 3 then. “So we watched the whole Games from opening to closing. … It’s always a big event, right?”
On Friday, the 10-time gold medalist will carry Canada’s flag into the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Paralympics, leading a Canadian team 55-athletes strong.
“I’m sure it will be [emotional],” McKeever said through a big grin. “Everything about sport is, good and bad. And I think that’s partly why we do this, to experience all the stuff, and so I’m looking forward to seeing what happens out there.”
McKeever, who’s never marched in the opening ceremony in his four previous Paralympics – his racing schedule has been too demanding – posed for photos after Thursday’s announcement at Canada Paralympic House. He draped the Maple Leaf around his shoulders like Superman’s cape, his buffalo plaid baseball hat pulled on backward.
“I’m a proud Canadian, and I’ve been fortunate to represent my country on the field of play out there, through a lifetime of sport that’s brought a lot of riches of experience,” he said. “This is something that you dream about doing, and it’s actually a nervous time. I think I’m more nervous to carry the flag than I am to race.”
The 38-year-old visually impaired skier from Canmore, Alta., has owned the top of the Paralympic medal podium, going undefeated in Games competition since 2006.
He was poised to make history in 2010 in Vancouver as the world’s first athlete to compete in both the winter Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. But Canada’s Olympic cross-country coaches opted to enter four other skiers in the men’s 50-kilometre race and not McKeever. The pain of being the odd man out, he said, stung for a long time.
He did make history as the first Canadian to be named to both a Paralympic and Olympic team in the same year, and a few weeks after the Olympics, he shrugged off his heartbreak by racing to three Paralympic gold medals.
Four years later in Sochi, McKeever got tangled up with a Russian skier near the start of the one-kilometre race, but clambered back to his feet and he and guide Graham Nishikawa caught up to win gold.
The skier admitted his competitive spirit may show itself when he walks into Pyeongchang Stadium on Friday.
“Racer mentality probably means I’ll be catching the teams in front,” he said, with a laugh. “I think there will probably be people there to keep me in place. Which is good … blind guy will just wander all over.”
McKeever competed in cross-country skiing from the age of 13, and raced at the world junior championships in 1998. A year later, at the age of 19, he started to lose his eyesight and was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease, an inherited condition of macular degeneration that also claimed his father’s vision.
The disease has robbed him of his central vision, but he still has 100-per-cent peripheral vision – he likes to tell people he can see the donut, but not the Timbit.
McKeever roared to a pair of gold medals in his Paralympic debut in 2002 in Salt Lake City, and would race to eight more titles over the next three Paralympics, plus a pair of silver medals and two bronze.
He’s also racked up 19 world titles, including two in February, 2017, over 10 and 20 kilometres.
McKeever’s 10 Paralympic golds match the amount earned by wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc and swimmers Michael Edgson and Timothy McIsaac.
Canada’s chef de mission Todd Nicholson, a retired Paralympic hockey player and the flag-bearer in 2006 in Turin, presented McKeever with the Maple Leaf.
“In 2006 … I can honestly say it’s a moment I will never forget,” Nicholson said. “I remember going into the opening ceremonies and there were 80,000 people screaming and yelling, and I’m really hoping that [McKeever] will experience that just as much as I have.”
McKeever’s older brother Robin, who competed at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, then raced as Brian’s guide before becoming the para-Nordic head coach, cheered on his younger brother at the announcement.
Also on hand were McKeever’s two guides, Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy, who competed for Canada at the Olympics last month and is new to Paralympic sport.