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Skiing Blind: Brian McKeever Heads to the Paralympics

Cross-country skier Brian McKeever has completed some of the most gruelling courses in the world and netted 10 Paralympic medals, all while visually impaired. This March at the Sochi Games, he’ll be working with a new guide-and a new energy.

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Skiing Blind: Brian McKeever Heads to the Paralympics

Brian McKeever is swooping down an incline, a few centimetres behind his partner, Erik Carleton. The two cross-country skiers are training in the jagged-peaked Italian Dolomites, and McKeever-who is 90 per cent blind-is waiting for Carleton to tell him when to slow down.

McKeever can smell the cold mountain air. He can feel the wind hitting his face and the tilt and dip of the slope beneath his boots. He can hear his skis slice through the hard snow. But he needs Carleton to be his eyes. McKeever depends on the one-time Olympic prospect to lead him to victory on the course by using intimate knowledge of his strengths and weaknesses. The two men live in Canmore, Alta., and between races they often embark on week-long runs where Carleton-a year older than 34-year-old McKeever-practises the speeds at which the para-athlete burns out and the speeds at which he can conserve energy and put the screws to his competitors in the final lap. 

The bond produced by the pair’s intensive and meticulous run-throughs-they try different time trials, after which a physiologist takes blood samples and records heart-rate data-has helped McKeever and Carleton dominate the sport since first teaming up in 2011. Last February, they won their second straight IPC World Championship title in Sollefteå, Sweden; in one race, they finished nearly a full minute ahead of the silver medallists.

“If you’re guiding a blind guy, you’re making split-second decisions with somebody else in mind,” McKeever says. For Carleton this means achieving a level of familiarity that allows him to anticipate McKeever’s strategy. He needs to know when to hold back and let opponents take the lead, negotiating perilous stretches of the course carefully but without giving up precious time, and when to burst ahead at the optimal moment. This hard-won synchronicity will be vital if the duo hope to maintain their No. 1 ranking at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics, where the field will be crowded by a cohort of fierce young Russian and Scandinavian rivals. 

But to help make McKeever unbeatable, Carleton needed to do more than face a steep learning curve. He had to replace the previous guide: McKeever’s brother, Robin.

Since childhood, McKeever wanted to follow in the tracks of Robin, a world-class cross-country skier who represented Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. At age 18, McKeever competed in the World Junior Championships. A year later, suddenly unable to read street signs or billboards, he learned he had Stargardt disease-a retinal disorder that robs young adults of their sight. He saw his athletic ambitions fade, too. Then, in 1999, the head coach of the Para-Nordic National Ski Team contacted him with an offer: train with the organization and, if all goes well, represent Canada internationally. 

It was the inspiration McKeever needed to set his career back on course. At the 2001 IPC World Cup in Germany, McKeever used his peripheral vision to steer himself to a second-place finish against reigning champion, Frank Höfle, who’d been rendered 95 per cent blind in a childhood accident. After the race, Höfle, who skied with a sighted guide, advised McKeever to do the same. “You probably would have beaten me today,” Höfle said. To place first, McKeever needed a partner.

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While guides aren’t mandatory, they provide a competitive edge. Shouting instructions constantly, they shepherd their skiers-sometimes on treacherous slopes-through a scrum of unpredictable moving bodies. The ultimate multi-taskers, guides block the wind and warm the track, allowing their partners to achieve higher-than-usual speeds while expending less effort. Ideally, this person would be a near-perfect match for McKeever’s body size, stride length and ability. Who better than his brother?

A couple of months after failing to qualify for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Robin found himself in Utah, where he and McKeever won their first of 10 Paralympic medals: two golds and one silver. But as McKeever got stronger and stronger, Robin’s most daunting challenge became a simple one: stay in the race. “The hardest part was being fit enough to keep ahead,” says Robin, who is six years older than his brother. “Only about half a dozen guys in the whole country can ski fast enough to guide him.” Robin’s race times were slipping. In late 2010, when he injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee while downhill skiing with his son, he knew his days as a guide were over. McKeever then looked to Carleton, a childhood buddy and former member of the National Development Team, to step into his brother’s boots. This was no small request. Guiding a blind skier is the closest thing to having your brain in another person’s body. For the brothers, who’d been skiing together since childhood, the relationship was intuitive. For Carleton, it had to be learned. It was a painstaking process, defined by trial and-sometimes embarrassing-error. During their first race, Carleton dropped his ski poles between his legs on a major

incline and tumbled. Luckily, they were far enough ahead that McKeever managed to place first.

The partnership has since matured into something stronger than the sum of its parts. In competitive skiing, athletes race at fast speeds in a bid to “drop” competitors. “When you’re racing able-bodied,” says McKeever, “you’re behind guys who are trying to put psychological pressure on you to push too hard and burn out.” But Carleton knows the exact point at which, for his partner, pluck turns into foolhardiness. “As the race goes on,” says McKeever, “it’s good knowing there’s somebody else working and thinking with me.” 

Being McKeever’s guide has revitalized Carleton’s career. “I was ready to retire,” says Carleton, who had become concerned that his training was too expensive. “Now I’ve joined a national team that covers my costs.” Carleton has also learned to put less of an onus on vision alone. “Sometimes I’m skiing in fog, and I’m like, Man, I can’t see anything,” says Carleton. “And then I think, Well, Brian can’t really see anything-even on a sunny day. So it motivates me to be like him in similar situations. He’s a disciplined skier but has the right amount of aggression on the more technical parts of the course. He doesn’t rely on his eyes, so he doesn’t freak out on steep downhills.”

Skiing tail to tip with McKeever for the last three years has also fostered a relationship that, for Carleton, is very much like brotherly love. He has now reached a point where he’s so synchronized with McKeever he can estimate his partner’s heart rate and blood-lactate levels mid-race. Racing with McKeever has also meant racing like McKeever. Carleton has abandoned his sprint-from-the-gun style in favour of McKeever’s slow-and-steady approach. “I taught him to race like an old guy,” McKeever says, laughing.