PYEONCGCHANG — Medal No. 14 was both historic and incredibly hard.
When Brian McKeever looks back at the race that made him Canada’s most decorated winter Paralympian, he’ll remember it as one of his most difficult.
The visually impaired cross-country skier opened the Pyeongchang Paralympics with a gold medal in the 20-kilometre event on Monday, his 11th Paralympic gold medal and 14th overall.
And in the moments afterward, the 38-year-old from Canmore, Alta., talked about the lung-busting final few kilometres.
“That one was hard. That one was really hard,” McKeever said. “I think we had a plan to ski comfortably into it and try and build towards the end, and I think I built too much in the middle.
“I almost undid it because the last lap was very hard to keep the pace, but good enough in the middle that we built a nice lead and then we were able to hang on. But it was touch and go there at the end.
McKeever passed the late Lana Spreeman, an alpine skier who captured 13 Paralympic medals between 1980 and 1994.
McKeever, who carried Canada’s flag into Friday’s opening ceremony, crossed in a time of 46 minutes 2.4 seconds with guides Graham Nishikawa and Russell Kennedy. The duo took turns guiding McKeever after each loop, a two-guide tactic the Canadian first implemented four years ago in Sochi.
“They did an awesome job today,” McKeever said on his guides. “It was super windy out there, so to be able to tuck in behind these big boys is important for me to get that rest a bit. They pushed hard, they skied really well, and they took care of me the whole way.
“But it was hard staying with these boys … Both Russ and Graham did such a good job today that I was hurting by the end, so it was thanks to them that we got this done.”
Nishikawa, a 34-year-old from Whitehorse, shrugged off McKeever’s praise.
“He always gives us too much props,” he said. “We have the hardest job here. He’s so fast, and we have to drive a really hard pace and into the wind, and so we’re trying to give ’er as hard as we can. But we know he’s always going to keep up. He’s Brian.”
Kennedy, who competed for Canada in the sprint at the Olympics last month, is a rookie guide. He took over for Nishikawa on the second lap.
“I just had to remember that Brian has done 10K and I haven’t, so that’s learning a bit, of how hard to go and just keeping track of him,” Kennedy said. “But he’s so fit that it’s not really a problem.”
Yury Holub was second in 47:07.5, while Thomas Clarion of France took the bronze in 47:24.4.
McKeever suffers from Stargardt’s disease, an inherited condition of macular degeneration that also claimed his father’s vision. He started to lose his eyesight at the age of 19. The disease has robbed him of his central vision, but he still has 100 per cent peripheral vision — he likes to tell people he can see the donut, but not the Timbit.
The skier should add to his medal total in Pyeongchang, as the 20K was just his first of three events.