Cross-country skier Brian McKeever wins third gold at Paralympics

Canada's Brian McKeever. (Thomas Lovelock/OIS/IOC via AP)

PYEONGCHANG, Korea, Republic Of — Hours before Brian McKeever completed his Pyeongchang hat trick, the veteran cross-country skier arrived at the Alpensia track before the sun was barely up.

He and his guides Russell Kennedy and Graham Nishikawa were the first skiers to arrive Saturday morning, and spent the better part of two hours testing different skis in the fast-changing weather conditions.

McKeever raced to his third gold medal at the Pyeongchang Paralympics in the visually impaired 10 kilometres on Saturday, for an incredible 13th gold of his career. Afterward, the 38-year-old from Canmore, Alta., gave credit to all the painstaking pre-race preparation by his team.

"We had about a dozen skis to get through because the temperature went from plus-20 the other day to minus-14 this morning. So that’s a massive swing," McKeever said. "We hadn’t seen anything that cold, we hadn’t seen the snow do what it did today, and with it warming over the day we knew we were going to have to be on the ball.

"So it was all new skis, testing new structures, new everything."

Natalie Wilkie, the youngest member of Canada’s Paralympic team at 17, raced to a thrilling gold in the standing women’s 7.5 kilometres while Emily Young of North Vancouver, B.C., claimed bronze.

And Mark Harendz of Hartsville, P.E.I., added bronze in the standing 10K for his fourth medal of the Games.

Their medals, combined with Canada’s curling bronze Saturday, boosted Canada’s total to 24 with one day remaining, making Pyeongchang the country’s best Winter Paralympics ever.

Nishikawa and Kennedy shared guiding duties for McKeever, who has Stargardt’s disease — he has peripheral vision, but no central vision. Nishikawa led for the first half, then stepped aside for Kennedy for the second half, and McKeever crossed in 23 minutes 17.8 seconds.

"It feels pretty good. That one was hard," McKeever said.

Sweden’s Zebastian Modin had been leading but crashed badly and couldn’t finish.

"I think he’s pretty hurt," McKeever said. "I’m feeling pretty rough for him, he’s a good friend of mine, and you never want to win that way."

McKeever, who carried Canada’s flag into the opening ceremonies, became Canada’s most successful winter athlete in history when he won the 20-kilometre race to open the Games. He then added a victory in the 1.5 kilometre sprint classic.

The skier, who fell in love with the Olympics watching the 1988 Games in Calgary, isn’t certain if he has one more Paralympics in him.

"It won’t necessarily be up to me, it will be up to my body," McKeever said. "It’s starting to break down and I’m more injured than I am healthy now, and it’s about managing that as we go forward. I know I’m closer to the end than the start, that’s just the reality."

"If I make it four more (years), great. And if I don’t, I’m comfortable with that too."

Regardless of his competitive future, he’ll ski "forever."

"It’s one of those sports that you can do for a very long time, at a recreational level as well. My dad (who also has Stargardt’s) is in his ’70s, he still gets out as much as he can," McKeever said. "I’m looking forward to that as well, being able to do this not just as racing and all that, but just for pleasure."

McKeever played cheerleader for Wilkie’s race, a thriller that came down to the wire. The teenager, who lost the four fingers on her left hand in a jointer machine in Grade 9 wood work class, won in 22:12.2, edging Ekaterina Rumyantseva, a neutral Paralympian from Russia (22:13.8). Young crossed in 22:13.9.

"Awesome. I didn’t think I’d get gold at all," said Wilkie, who won bronze earlier in the Games. "This is only my first Paralympics. It feels awesome, especially being able to share the podium with my teammate Emily.

"I was imagining when I was pushing down with my pole that I was elbowing my brother," Wilkie added, with a laugh. "That really helped me."

Canada’s previous best Paralympic performance was the 19 medals won in 2010 in Vancouver. The team’s goal here was to top the 16 medals from four years ago in Sochi.

Canada is guaranteed at least one more medal Sunday when the hockey team battles the rival Americans for gold. The cross-country team could add more hardware in the relays.

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