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Canada's McKeever 24th at nordic skiing

By Randy Starkman, Sports Reporter

Blind skier vs. the best Brian McKeever has a form of macular degeneration that affects central vision. But his ailment hasn't stopped him from becoming a top athlete who aims to compete at both the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010.

As a legally blind cross country skier who's dominated at the Paralympics, Canada's Brian McKeever wondered how he'd fit in against the best athletes in the world - it turns out he's right where he belongs.

McKeever made a huge step Wednesday towards his goal of competing at both the Olympics and Paralympics in Vancouver in 2010, finishing 24th in a field of 119 for Canada's top result in the men's 15-kilometre freestyle event at the world nordic skiing championships in Sapporo, Japan

"He's finding new limits of what he can do," said Canadian head coach Dave Wood.

McKeever has Stargardt's disease, a form of macular degeneration that affects central vision. He was diagnosed at age 18, shortly after competing at the world junior championships and eventually concentrated on the Paralympics, where he's a four-time gold medal winner.

But he never gave up hopes of competing at the Olympic level and Wednesday's result shows that's no pipedream.

"To be here and compete with these guys and be in the mix, and in the mix with the Canadians as well, shows I'm potentially moving up to that level," said McKeever in a telephone interview from Japan.

For his part, Wood has no doubt that McKeever has what it takes to be part of the able-bodied team for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

"He wouldn't be going there just to be part of the team," said Wood. "He's not a participator; he'll be a competitor."

Wood said the conditions have been treacherous in Japan, making it really difficult even for skiers with full vision. In Saturday's pursuit race, two athletes suffered dislocated shoulders in crashes and many others broke their equipment in falls.

"Here's a guy with poor/no vision and he's taking everything well," he said. "I'm impressed how he's approached everything kind of as an equal yet he has challenges other people don't have."

McKeever has survived with a gung-ho approach to the challenges.

"I think always being aggressive is a good way to handle it," he said. "The downhills are a bit hairy. They're rutted up and icy and I wasn't expecting that. I couldn't see them at all. The corners were really hairy and I was all over the place and sliding. I don't like to be all over the place, but the best way to handle it is to put your hands out and keep pushing forward."

McKeever had a beneficial start number on a day where snow began to fall hard during the race, but not as beneficial as some skiers. He was 24th in a time of 38 minutes, 3.07 seconds. He had been a solid 39th in the men's 30-kilometre pursuit race on the weekend.

Norway's Lars Berger, making the transition from biathlon to cross-country a smooth one, won the gold in 35:50.0, ahead of Leanid Karneyenka of Belarus and Germany's Tobias Angerer.

McKeever said none of his peers had made any fuss about his showing.

"I'm here to compete on a level playing field and don't expect to be treated any differently," he said.

Taken from http://www.thestar.com/Sports/article/186613.

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