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Natalie Wilkie storms to silver and third medal in Beijing

BEIJING, Chn— Brian McKeever wrote a golden closing chapter to his storied Paralympic career, taking the win in the final individual cross-country ski race of the Beijing Winter Games.

The 42-year-old legend proved age is just a number while sweeping all three individual men’s country ski events for the fourth consecutive Paralympic Winter Games.

Led by his guide and longtime friend, Graham Nishikawa (Whitehorse), McKeever won the men’s visually impaired 12.5-kilometre skate-ski race with a time of 33:06.6.

“It was absolutely perfect today. We talked a lot about how we would race it and have been working on the pace over the last two days knowing that if we started it the right way we could adapt to anybody else’s pace throughout the race and that worked out for us today,” said McKeever.

It was the 20th career podium for the six-time Paralympian from Canmore, Alta., and 16th gold, which ties him for the most titles won by a male at the Paralympic Winter Games. Germany’s Gerd Schoefelder also racked up 16 gold medals in alpine skiing.

“I’ve never been interested in leaving a legacy or about how many medals I have won. For me it’s about the process, doing the work, and being the best athletes we can be. We try to do the work as professionally as we can, and the results come with that, said McKeever, who became Canada’s most accomplished Winter Paralympian at the 2018 Games.

“If there is one thing that I believe we did show through my career is the level that athletes can get to at the Paralympics and how professional you need to be in order to be at the top. If you’re not training a 100 per cent professionally here, it is not possible to reach the podium. The depth of field is pretty incredible now. I’m proud of all of the athletes here because I know how much work they are all putting in now and how competitive it is at the Paralympics.”

One of those athletes who has continued to push McKeever to be even stronger into the latter years of his career is Zebastian Modin. The Swede battled McKeever one final time while cranking up the pace in the final lap.

Modin and his guide Emil Joensson Haag charging through the heavy snow, to secure the silver medal with a time of 33:59.1.

“Brian is amazing. He’s been pushing up front for so many years and showing what a para-athlete can do,” said Modin. “He has pushed the quality level of our circuit and para sport. We have to be thankful for everything he has done for us.”

Ukraine’s Dmytro Suiarko, and his guide Oleksandr Nikonovych, locked up the bronze with a time of 34:08.1.

Ranked the number one athlete in the world, McKeever and Nishikawa ironically wore bib number 16 as the final athletes off the start line. The Canadian duo methodically picked apart the field while skiing in complete synchronization in their five spins around the 2.5-kilometre loop that left Nishikawa collapsing at the finish line.

“He is in amazing shape. He definitely put me under. I had my work cut out for me today and I was absolutely spent at the line,” said Nishikawa.“We’ve had such a long journey together, so it was really special to be able to do it one more time and I just wanted to make sure we had a good race today.

“Brian makes it look easy, but I have had a front row seat to seeing what he does, and it is incredible. He works so hard. He is so professional, and he loves skiing. It was a fun day for me.”

Nishikawa is one of four athletes who have had the opportunity to guide McKeever throughout his illustrious career. His older brother, and the head coach the Canadian Nordic team, Robin McKeever, led Brian to the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Games before handing the torch off to Erik Carleton and Nishikawa in 2014. Olympian Russell Kennedy has shared guiding duties with Nishikawa for the aging warrior over the last two Paralympic quadrennials.

“I see what he does in the offseason, so I’m not surprised to see what he does at this age,” added Nishikawa. “Every day he calls me up and we get out and he out-trains me. He is always on. Whether it’s training or picking skis, he knows the waxing and he just loves skiing, and the sport.

“There may be pressure there to win all these medals, but he didn’t pay attention to that at all this week. He is just so dialed working on strategy, talking about skis. He is just so processed focused, and it is just fun to be part of that.”

McKeever may be going out on top at the Paralympics, but a new star has also emerged on the Canadian team.

Natalie Wilkie, of Salmon Arm, B.C., skied to her third medal in Beijing, winning the silver in the women’s 10-kilometre standing classification.

The 21-year-old won gold in both the sprint and long-distance races earlier in the week.  Saturday’s triumph may have been her best effort yet, stopping the clock at 41:45.3.

“This is amazing. I know it isn’t the gold medal, but I can’t believe it,” said Wilkie. “This was one of the toughest races I have ever been in. Coming off the start line I knew it was going to be a rough one because the snow felt like I was stepping through a metre of slush.”

Quickly settling into her rhythm, Wilkie relentlessly worked her way around the Zhangjiakou National Biathlon Centre. Drafting the eventual gold medallist – Oleksandra Kononova of the Ukraine – for the middle part of the race, Wilkie was one of five athletes fighting for the medals in the final lap.

“I got a good pace going and just tried to hold out as best as I could. The last lap I knew I had to ski my hardest because I was one second off third. I was sprinting in the last 200-metre of the course but fell on the last downhill. I got up as soon as I could. I knew as long as I skied hard I had a shot at the podium but I was so surprised to win the silver medal,” said Wilkie who was closing the gap on the lead time before her crash.

Kononova set the winning time at 41:18.0. Iryna Bui, also of the Ukraine, was third at 41:47.1.

Canada’s Wilkie first introduced herself to the world in 2018 when she won a complete set of Paralympic medals as a 17-year-old rookie – just two years after losing the four fingers in her left hand during a school woodshop accident.

She now leaves Beijing viewed as one of the best in her sport.

“Coming into these Games I was quite nervous because I feel like I had set the bar quite high in PyeongChang, but now looking back on it, I know I had nothing to worry about,” said Wilkie. “The last four years have been great training for me, and I have become a lot more consistent in my results. That is showing here in Beijing which is awesome.”

Brittany Hudak (Prince Albert, Sask.) was seventh at 43:16.3. Emily Young (North Vancouver) skied to 11th spot at 45:40.1.

Collin Cameron (Bracebridge, Ont.) came up just short of the podium in the men’s 10-kilometre sitting classification. A winner of two bronze medals in Beijing, Cameron skied to a fourth-place time of 31:47.8.

China’s Zhongwu Mao won the race with a time of 29:10.7.

Derek Zaplotinsky, of Smoky Lake, Alta., was 15th at 36:14.9. Ethan Hess, of Pemberton, B.C., stopped the clock at 38:16.1 for 19th.

Christina Picton (Fonthill, Ont.) was eighth in the women’s sitting classification with a time of 28:55.6. Lyne-Marie Bilodeau (Sherbrooke, Que.) was 13th at 34:20.4.

Mark Arendz (Hartsville, P.E.I.) finished seventh in the men’s 12.5-kilometre standing race after punching the clock at 36:23.5.

Canada will field two relay teams to wrap up the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games on Sunday. Mark Arendz, Emily Young, Collin Cameron and Natalie Wilkie will team up in the 4×2.5km mixed relay. Brittany Hudak and Brian McKeever will carry the Canadian flag in the 4×2.5km open relay.

Check out CBC’s streaming and TV viewing guide to catch all of the Para-Nordic action in Beijing.

https://bit.ly/3HDmMGV

Complete Paralympic Results: https://www.paralympic.org/beijing-2022/results

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FOR FURTHER INFORMATION:

Chris Dornan

Media and Public Relations

Nordiq Canada

WhatsApp: 403-620-8731