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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 27, 2010

Winter Olympics: Blind skier crushed that he won't race for Canada

AP Sports Writer

WHISTLER, British Columbia Brian McKeever never wanted people to treat him any differently once he started to go blind in college.

And so part of him understood completely Saturday when he learned he wouldn't get the chance to become the first winter sports athlete in compete in the Paralympics and Olympics.

That didn't mean he liked it.

"Olympic dream over," he wrote on his Twitter account. "I don't think I've ever been so sad."

The 30-year-old legally blind Canadian cross-country skier who still has his peripheral vision cried when he learned he wouldn't ski in the 50-kilometer mass start classic race on Sunday because he wasn't one of the team's four fastest skiers.

"It's emotional for sure. It's not something I ever hoped to hear. I'm not happy, and I'm very, very crushed by the decision," McKeever said as tears streamed down his reddened cheeks on a rainy Saturday morning at Whistler Olympic Park.

"I'll respect the decision, for sure. I don't have to be happy about it."

Canadian Sara Renner, who finished 13th in the women's 30K classical race Saturday, said she skied the last Olympic race of her career with a heavy heart because of McKeever's benching.

"I was thinking today I wish Brian was a girl because we had two extra spots," Renner said. "But the men, they're just so strong right now. I skied with Brian's thoughts with me today, too."

McKeever, who will still participate in the Paralympics here next month, said he can see his coach's reasoning.

"Our boys are racing so fast that they deserve everything they got," said McKeever, who only sees a fuzzy blob when he looks straight ahead because of a degenerative, genetic eye condition known as Stargardt's disease.

"It's the strongest men's team we've ever fielded, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it," he said. "... We had five guys for four spots."

So, the team will race Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov, Devon Kershaw and George Grey, all of whom have top-10 finishes here. Under International Ski Federation rules, the team can only enter four skiers.

Canadian coach Inge Braten said these four were simply faster than McKeever.

"They can fight for a medal, all four of them," said Braten, who called the decision the toughest of his coaching career, which has spanned 44 years.

At the same time, it was an easy call.

"No, it wasn't close," said Dave Wood, Canada's assistant coach and team manager. "The four boys that will start the 50K are our best four guys right now."

Some nations don't use all four allotments for the grueling final race of the Olympics. Rather than risk injury or burnout in the 50K, they send some of their top athletes ahead to focus on the World Cup circuit.

Not Canada.

"When Brian qualified for the Olympic team, he's an Olympic team member, the same as everybody else," Wood said. "And I think we can't really ask others to stand aside. I guess, they could if they wanted to, but everybody's here to race a the Olympics, and race as well as they can at the Olympics."

The news upset some Canadians who saw McKeever's part in the Olympics as a matter of intense national pride, and it also disappointed advocates for the disabled.

Wood said the Canadians couldn't let sentimentality factor into the equation.

He said results are paramount "whether it's the Olympics, the world championships or the World Cup. And whether it's the federal government that supports us or our sponsors, we have to perform. We don't get anything for participating."

When it was suggested that letting McKeever race on Sunday might have gone to the core of the Olympic ideal, Wood said: "Well, perhaps. I can't answer that. I don't think we can fairly ask others to stand aside. It's their dreams, too.

"We're being fair," he added. "We're being fair to our sport. We're telling people to be as best as you can and when they are, you have to let them participate."

McKeever, a seven-time medalist in the Paralympics, has enough vision to see what he needs to by looking around the object or person.

In Paralympic competitions, he relied on a guide on the course who went ahead of him and showed him the way. Without a guide at the Olympics, he had planned to find a skier of similar speed to follow.

He said he hopes to make the Olympic team again for the 2014 Games in Sochi Russia.

"Four years is a long time, but I'm really looking forward to trying again," he said, "and hopefully getting a race there."