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Originally published February 19, 2010 at 9:01 PM | Page modified February 20, 2010 at 4:02 PM

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Steve Kelley

Sight-impaired skier Brian McKeever makes Olympic history

Canada's Brian McKeever, the first athlete ever to compete in both the Paralympics and the Olympics, sees only the periphery of most people's field of vision. Yet perhaps more than anyone else at the Vancouver Winter Games, he epitomizes the Olympic ideal.

Seattle Times staff columnist

VANCOUVER, B.C.

When Brian McKeever opens his brown eyes, all he can see are very fuzzy images in front of him. He calls his vision, "Flashbulb eyes," because his sensation is the same as sighted people get when someone's camera flashes in their faces.

McKeever, the first athlete ever to compete in both the Paralympics and the Winter Olympics, sees only the periphery. "I see the doughnut. I don't see the Timbits," McKeever jokes, referring to the bite-sized "doughnut holes" sold at a Canadian fast-food chain.

He doesn't look at the world. He looks around it. When he speaks to you, he focuses on a spot above your head and finds your face on the edges of his sight.

In 1998, the same year his brother Robin competed in the Nagano Games, Canadian Olympic cross country skier Brian McKeever was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, a genetic disease that robbed him of his central vision.

"There's not a day goes by that I don't wish that I saw better," McKeever, 30, said, talking to a small group of reporters earlier this week. "And yet, it's made me who I am. It's a part of who I am and I like the person I am. If that's the case, then this can't be all bad. But I certainly wouldn't wish it on anybody else."

McKeever was 19 when he first noticed he couldn't read the words on billboards. After that realization, the disease progressed rapidly. Two years after his first symptoms, he was declared legally blind.

Just when his career was taking off, his vision was shutting down.

Stargardt's is a sinister disability, the kind of disease that can take away your will as it is taking away your vision.

"In the weeks following the diagnosis, it was a knee-jerk reaction," said McKeever, whose vision has stabilized in recent years. "All these emotions rushed in and you try to make sense of it initially, and sometimes we fear the worst.

"But I looked at my dad, who has the same disease, and saw how it never stopped him. I realized it didn't have to be a limiting factor and it's best just to get on living life. To be honest with you, I don't think this has taken much away from me."

After his diagnosis, people told McKeever what he couldn't do. And then he did it. What he couldn't see. And then he saw it. Where he couldn't go. And now he has arrived.

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At these Winter Olympics, the two-time Paralympian and seven-time Paralympic medalist, is making history.

On the final day of the Games, he will ski in the 50-kilometer cross country race. And next month he will compete in the Paralympics.

Sitting in a chair, his white-framed sunglasses perched on top of his ski cap, McKeever couldn't stop grinning. He is a reminder that the Olympics aren't just about the medal counts.

There are more to the Games than owning the podium. For the vast majority of Olympians, the journey is as significant as the destination.

"The Olympics, at its ideal, is about the athletes of the world coming together and competing on fair and level playing fields," McKeever said. "That's a really beautiful thing. It really is about taking part.

"And then, for me, I'm not going to stand up here and say I'm going to win a medal. But one thing I can say is that I certainly am going to go out there in the best shape of my life and when I hit the finish line I want to be able to say I had the best race I could have had on that particular day."

His sport is as much a part of his DNA as his disease. Cross-country skiing is something McKeevers have done in Canmore, Alberta, for generations. And even with his "Timbits" vision, Brian McKeever sees his world with remarkable clarity.

"I'm sometimes struck just by the beauty that's in what we get to do and the places we get to see," he said. "And I'm thankful I can see what I see. We skiers do live in a beautiful world, and when we're out training, we're right in the middle of it. That's part of what makes our sport great."

In the Paralympics, Brian's brother Robin skis the course with him, guiding him through the hard turns and potential trouble spots. But Robin won't be allowed to guide Robin in the Winter Olympics.

Here, Brian, who qualified for the Games by finishing 21st at the 2007 world championships, must follow the blurs and shapes of his competitors.

"Robin's job always is to get me from start to finish as safely and as fast as possible," Brian said. "But here I'll just have to find some fast field to follow and hope I can hang on."

Cutting through all of the commercialism and jingoism in the Games, there still are stories like Brian McKeever's to remind us of the importance of the Olympic ideal. The Games still have capacity to inspire.

"If there's any message that I can put out there, it's just to keep having fun," McKeever said. "You can never lose sight of that sense of fun. And if you keep that in your heart, you can do great things, whether you're gunning for the Olympics, the Paralympics, or what-have-you. There don't have to be limitations put on fun."

Brian McKeever doesn't believe in limits. Even through the haze in front of him, he has found his way home, found his way to the Winter Olympics.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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