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Canada's McKeever to ski at Olympics, Paralympics
By RACHEL COHEN
Associated Press
2010-02-17 09:43 AM
Cross-country skier Brian McKeever is about to begin an extraordinary journey _ and not just the 50-kilometer race he's scheduled to compete in during the last week of the Vancouver Games.

The 30-year-old Canadian, who suffers from a degenerative eye condition, is planning to become the first winter sports athlete to participate in a both an Olympic and Paralympic Games. He is scheduled to race on Feb. 28, the last day of the games. A few weeks after that, he'll try to add to his total of four Paralympic gold medals.

McKeever's older brother, Robin, competed in cross-country skiing at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. A month later, the family learned Brian had been diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a genetic condition that affects central vision but not peripheral vision.

They thought there was no chance Brian would ever experience the same Olympic thrill as Robin in reaching their sport's pinnacle.

Even after the initial shock of the news, they should have known better. People can lead a full and fulfilling life with Stargardt's disease _ just ask Brian's father, who also has the condition.

"There was nothing different to me about while other kids got in the car and went to the grocery store, we'd get on the back of Dad's bike," McKeever recalled.

He knew growing up he might inherit the disorder _ his parents always told their children to let them know the moment they had any eyesight problems. But because Bill McKeever and his sister started experiencing symptoms in elementary school, the family assumed that if the kids reached their late teens with no trouble, they were in the clear.

Then McKeever started noticing that big letters on billboards were "popping in and out." In the span of one semester in university, he went from being able to sit at the back of a large lecture hall and see the front to not being able to make anything out, even from the front row. McKeever was declared legally blind within two years.

He describes his condition as the "fuzzy blob in the middle" you get after staring at a bright light. Reading is difficult, and he misses that pastime. Otherwise, McKeever said, "I don't think it took much away from me, to be perfectly honest."

His impairment was imperceptible as he walked into a conference room for an interview session and talked to reporters Tuesday after arriving in Vancouver. Because his peripheral vision is intact, he can generally see what he needs by looking over or around it, though he doesn't always catch all the fine details. McKeever can't drive, so walks where he needs to in the Canadian town where he trains.

The degeneration has stabilized so he barely notices any changes now. He will never be completely blind, McKeever said, but "I suppose that blind spot will get maybe slightly bigger and darker."

In Paralympic races, competitors use a "guide," somebody who skis ahead of them and leads the way. In 2001, after Robin McKeever failed to qualify for the Salt Lake City Olympics, his brother asked him to be his guide.

"It was a big ask, because I imagine it must have been a very tough period for him," McKeever said. "And yet he jumped in without hesitation and said he'd love to do it."

McKeever has seven medals from the last two Paralympic games, and also continued to compete against able-bodied skiers. Training with somebody as talented as his brother, his times kept improving, and McKeever started to think about the Olympics. In January, he was selected for the Canadian team.

Without a guide, McKeever tries to pick a competitor of similar speed to follow. "I'll just have to find some fast wheels to follow, and hang on," he said.

He practices skiing the course and repeatedly watches video of it so the nuances will become second-nature. While he's apt to joke that "if you stay in the white between the green, you're pretty safe," the chaos of mass starts and the speed of downhills can be tricky even for those with perfect vision.

"He's had lots of crashes. It always doesn't go good for him," said Tom Holland, high-performance director of Cross Country Canada. "He's talking very positive, but over the years, there's been wipeouts that he's fallen into people. That's a skill set that he's acquired."

McKeever seemed completely at ease Tuesday with the attention lavished on him and his story. Robin McKeever said in a phone interview that his brother was more worried the previous day about how many socks to pack for the Olympics and Paralympics than by speaking to the media the next day.

McKeever is comfortable with the attention, but making the Olympics means much more than just showing up.

"I'm not necessarily focused on wining a gold medal," he said, "but I am focused on results."

It's the kind of normalcy _ at least normalcy for an elite athlete _ that he feared was lost with that diagnosis 12 years ago.

"Not a day goes by where I don't wish that I saw better. It seems so easy to get into a car and run an errand at times," McKeever said. "And yet it's made me who I am. It's a part of who I am, and I like the person that I am, so if that's the case it can't be all bad."

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