Brian McKeever to Make Olympic History

Susan LaVentureI was excited to see that a Canadian cross-country skiier named Brian McKeever qualified to compete in this year’s Winter Olympics. McKeever, who has Stargardt’s Disease and is legally blind, will be the first athlete to compete in a Winter Olympics after competing first at the Paralympics. His 50-kilometer cross-country ski event will take place on February 28. McKeever will also be competing in this year’s Paralympics in Vancouver, March 12-21.

This ESPN article provides an interesting history of other athletes with disabilities who have competed and even earned gold medals in the Olympics—really an inspiring read for those of us who have struggled at times to get accommodations for our children to compete in sports. There is also a nice interview with McKeever available on YouTube, in which he talks about the progression of his disease, and how he reacted initially. Brian, good luck in your race! We will all be cheering you on.

Parents, I’d love to hear about your children’s experiences with sports. Have you checked out organizations like USABA, the Blind Judo Foundation, or Ski for Light? I recently learned that one of AFB’s employees, Tara Annis, is just back from a week-long ski trip. We asked Tara to tell us a little bit about how she got involved in skiing. I am happy to introduce her as our guest-blogger this week!

by Tara Annis

Tara Annis skiing in Truckee, California at Donner PassI love any type of sports or recreation activity, and am interested in learning about other visually impaired persons participating in sports.

I have to honestly say that cross-country skiing is one of my favorite activities, mainly because it is an endurance sport and allows me to be outdoors.

2009 was my first year at Ski for Light, and I loved it so much, I decided to return this year. It was in Provo, Utah, at Soldier Hollow ski resort, one of the sites of the winter Olympics in 2002. It was interesting to note that Brian McKeever was at these Olympics in Utah that year, so I felt a particular interest in his story.

I had no idea that so many disabled persons had participated in the Olympics; I had only heard of Marla Runyan, the visually impaired track athlete, since last year I read her biography, No Finish Line, which was definitely thought-provoking.

I wish the media would expand on these stories, since I am sure the public perceptions of persons with disabilities would become more positive. Education is the way to dispel myths and stereotypes, and eliminate ignorance.

I got mixed reactions when I informed family and friends I was going skiing. Some said, “That’s great,” and did not ask any more questions, or doubt my abilities. Yet, I did have one particular neighbor ask, “What are you trying to do—kill yourself!? I have tried skiing, and it needs a lot of balance and good visual acuity. I couldn’t do it, so how can you?”

There is not much adaptation that a VI person needs for cross-country skiing, mainly just a person who serves as a guide, describing the terrain, such as size of the slopes of a hill, sharpness of turns, etc.

I have some usable vision, and can see if objects are in front of me, such as a tree or another skier, but cannot see the tracks that are used on the trails, so my guide did assist in making sure I knew which direction the tracks were going.

I had a great guide, just wanting to help me out, and have us work as a team; I did not have to worry about him being condescending, having to “spend my day with a special blind person.” He was there just to have some fun, and meet new people, the same reason everyone was at Ski for Light. It wasn’t about “conquering blindness” or any other type of feel-good lines sometimes used to describe disabled sporting events.

We spent five days skiing various trails, perfecting technique, and just enjoying the scenery. I remembered skiing technique from last year, all of the skiing positions, the diagonal stride for flat areas, snowplow for downhill, and herringbone for uphill climbs. My guide and I also discussed ski equipment, in particular non-waxable versus skis that need various kinds of wax for different kinds of snow conditions.

I competed in the 10K race again this year, and had a time of 1 hour 9 minutes, which I thought was okay—I’m extremely competitive with myself, and am a perfectionist, so I do wish I had pushed myself more to get a faster time, but I always have next year when SFL will be in Colorado.

I loved this year so much, and want to keep skiing. I called my local ski club, and will be attending their next meeting in March. I discussed going on one of their ski trips to one of West Virginia’s local resorts.

I want to participate in recreational activities specifically for the visually impaired, but also want to be active in my community in recreation that is for anyone, not just for the VI, which is why I contacted the ski club. I think that persons with vision loss should use all the resources available to them. I have seen VI persons who will only go to blindness-specific recreation activities, and are afraid to try stuff in their community. I have also seen persons who feel that there is a stigma attached to VI-specific events, and feel they will offer no challenge. Both of these statements are incorrect, and I want to get the word out about this fact.