PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – In cross-country skiing for visually impaired athletes, trusting the sighted guide and being in sync with the person who sends navigational commands makes all the difference.
Eleven-time gold medalist Brian McKeever, Canada’s most decorated winter Paralympian, and his guide Graham Nishikawa have a comfortable partnership partly because they share one distinctive feature in common: their Japanese heritage.
“You know, Graham and I have a lot in common, (like) the fact that we both have one Japanese parent. So that’s fun and we share that part of the culture,” said McKeever, Canada’s flag=bearer at the opening ceremony.
“We also have similar personalities and what we enjoy and just everything from how we train, what we like doing, what our bodies like and music we listen to, all that stuff.”
Nishikawa’s Japanese grandparents moved to Canada before his father was born. The 34-year-old Nishikawa guided McKeever to victory in the 1-km sprint freestyle event at the 2014 Sochi Games, one of three gold medals the Paralympian claimed there.
“We both have some interesting family history,” Nishikawa said. “We’re definitely Canadian but it’s cool to have that heritage and that lineage.”
In Pyeongchang, Nishikawa and backup guide Russell Kennedy led the Paralympian to the top of the podium in Monday’s 20-km freestyle skiing. With the win, McKeever has earned a total of 14 Paralympic medals.
Nishikawa was a skier in able-bodied competition and previously a member of Canada’s senior development squad. Four years ago he opened a new chapter in his life as a guide for McKeever, who was diagnosed with Stargardt disease when he was 19.
“The transition went super nicely. I was done for myself and what a great way to keep skiing and keep training to do this. This turned out to be just so crazy,” Nishikawa said.
“It’s stressful because he’s Brian, but it’s a good job. His dedication and training is so crazy and it’s pretty cool to be around.”
Nishikawa says their solid teamwork comes from having similarities in the way they ski and knowing each other’s strengths.
“We’ve known each other for 10 years and we’re very good friends. He’s an older skier in Canada, and it’s a small community so I definitely looked up to him as a skier,” Nishikawa said.
“We’re just trying to do the best race we can every time and not make too many mistakes. If we do that, we can’t really be sad with the result.”
McKeever’s older brother Robin competed in cross-country skiing at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games and went on to become Brian’s guide. Since then, the younger brother has worked with several other guides in his storied career.
The 38-year-old was set to become the first athlete to compete at the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in the same year when he was named to the Canadian able-bodied team for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
However, he was left off the start list for the 50-km classic event in a controversial decision by Canada’s Olympic cross-country coaches.
“I know the dream of making it to the Olympics is rapidly fading, but that’s OK too. I’m closer to the end of my career than the start, and I’m comfortable with that as well,” he said.
“I think that’s just part of becoming more mature as an athlete, knowing where you stand.”
Turning his attention back to the present — and his next event, the 1.5-km sprint classic on Wednesday — McKeever says he will strive for a perfect race together with his guides.
“The guides and I always have a very close relationship. We train together every day,” he said.
“So as much as I’m not necessarily guided by my brother Robin anymore, I’ve been fortunate to be guided by a lot of guys that are basically my brothers.”