Bent on inspiring—and winning-Canada’s Paralympians mine Salt Lake gold
Synchronicity is everything for brothers Brian and Robin McKeever. The cross-country skiing duo look as if they’re connected by invisible strings as they power their way over the snow, arms and legs moving in tandem. Brian, the younger of the two at 22, started losing his eyesight three years ago because of macular degeneration, which affects the retina. His peripheral vision isn’t bad—he can pick out the darting tails of his brother’s skis as he keeps pace behind—but he has no central vision. His 28-year-old guide, a former able-bodied Olympian who competed at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, navigates the hills and turns. The trick, says Brian, who lives and trains with Robin in Canmore, Alta., is just to do what his brother does. “I have to mirror him,” Brian says. “We do a little communicating, but I just follow his technique as closely as I can. There’s just a couple of inches, tip to tail.”
Sure, the technique has its challenges, but try and keep the McKeever brothers off the winners’ podium. By Friday, they had collected gold medals in the five-km classic and 10-km freestyle races at the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City, with their final event—the 20-km free— still to come. Their triumphs contributed to an impressive showing for Canada’s 27-member Paralympic team as it built on the Salt Lake success of the country’s able-bodied athletes last month.
Helping out were the Paralympic team’s two lone female alpine skiers, rookie Lauren Woolstencroft and 1998 double silvermedalist Karolina Wisniewska. Woolstencroft, a 20-year-old Victoria native, battled back from a rough crash in the downhill on the first day of the Games to win gold in the Super G. “I was sore,” she says. “It was a big tumble and I was shaken, but I really made a big effort to put it behind me and focus on the race.” The great thing about the finish, said the electrical engineering student who skis with three prosthetic limbs—one on each leg and one on her left arm—was that her friend and teammate Wisniewska received the bronze medal beside her. “We train together on snow and off snow,” Woolstencroft says. “She knows how hard I work and I know how hard she works, and for both of us to be up there was even more rewarding.” Wisniewska picked up her second bronze of the Games in the Super G and added a silver in the giant slalom, while Woolstencroft finished third for bronze. Also medalling was Daniel Wesley, 41, a five-time Paralympian from New Westminster, B.C., who won bronze in the sit-ski downhill and silver in the Super G. Scott Patterson, 40, from Vancouver, took bronze in the giant slalom sit-ski.
In men’s sledge hockey, Canada fell short to Sweden in the bronze medal game, 2-1. But for Canada’s Paralympians, winning wasn’t everything. Wisniewska, for one, hopes the Paralympics inspire disabled kids. Born with cerebral palsy—a debilitative brain condition that affects the muscle strength and coordination in both her legs—Wisniewska remembers growing up in Calgary thinking she could never be an Olympian. “Maybe if we can educate kids about the Paralympics, kids who are disabled can become Parlympians. And they can be proud of that.”
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