If you tune in to the Olympic 50 kilometer classical cross-country skiing race on Sunday, you'll get to see an inspiring bit of history. During the race, Canadian skier Brian McKeever will become the first athlete to compete in both the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the same year. The 30-year-old from Canmore, Alberta, isn't just one of the world's best cross-country skiers; he's also legally blind.
In 1998, McKeever was a promising 19-year-old skier when he was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a type of juvenile macular degeneration that gradually leads to blindness. Twelve years later, McKeever only has 10 percent of his vision, and that tiny fraction is in his peripheral vision.
Rather than rolling over when he lost his sight, though, McKeever got back on his skis. He made his Paralympic debut in 2002 and proceeded to kick some major tail. With his older brother—former nine-time Canadian cross-country champion and 1998 Olympian Robin McKeever—as his sighted guide on the course, McKeever picked up two gold and two bronze medals in the skiing and biathlon events.
(Quick aside: how do visually impaired athletes deal with the shooting aspect of the biathlon? They use modified guns that emit a sound to let the shooter know how accurately he's aiming the gun. Instead of bullets, these rifles fire a laser beam at a computerized target. You can read a firsthand account of the event here.)
At the 2006 Paralympics, McKeever—who might have the coolest sideburns since Wolverine—was even more dominant as he picked up four golds, a silver, and a bronze. He eventually turned his focus towards making an appearance in the able-bodied Olympics, though, and he won a spot on the Canadian team by winning a 50 km able-bodied race last December.
How does McKeever get by without a guide in able-bodied races? He practices a course over and over again until he thinks he's got all of its little twists and turns committed to memory. He uses his remaining peripheral vision to watch videos of the course, and on race day McKeever just tries to key in on another skier whose speed he thinks he can match and follows him. Last week he jokingly told the Associated Press that "if you stay in the white between the green, you're pretty safe,"
Although McKeever won't be able to ski with a guide in the Olympic race on Sunday, he and his big brother/guide are reuniting for five events at their third Paralympics once the Games are closed. No matter how the Olympic race shakes out, McKeever hopes his participation will help people see just how elite the Paralympians are.
"It's the Olympic Games for people with physical disabilities and I hope people will realize through my story the gap is not that big," McKeever said in an interview last month. "Just because somebody has a disability doesn't mean they are not training hard or are extremely fit."
UPDATE (February 27): McKeever won't be racing after all.)