Canada’s Nordic Skiers Celebrate Medal Hat Trick at Paralympic Winter Games
BEIJING, Chn— Canada’s cross-country ski athletes sprinted to their second triple-medal day at the Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing on Wednesday.
Guided by Russell Kennedy (Canmore, Alta.), Brian McKeever (Canmore, Alta.) snagged his 15th Paralympic title in the men’s visually impaired sprint race. Natalie Wilkie (Salmon Arm, B.C.) also remained unbeaten at the Zhangjiakou Biathlon Centre, winning the women’s standing race.
Collin Cameron (Bracebridge, Ont.) skied to his second bronze medal of the week in the men’s sit-skiing classification.
The 42-year-old McKeever skied to his 11th straight individual gold medal, and second of the week, with a brilliant come-from-behind victory in the sprint final.
“The sprint is our toughest event to win. The older you get the less pure speed you have left,” said McKeever.
Sprint days include one qualifying round prior to the head-to-head heats where visually impaired athletes ski in groups of four. Standing and sit-skiers ski in heats of six. The top-three athletes in each heat move onto the finals.
“It is a long day with multiple rounds. I always feel that if I can make it into a final, I have got a good chance just from accumulative years of training,” said McKeever.
Warm weather and heavy snow conditions put an emphasis on guiding athletes through the 1.2-kilometre course. And the 30-year-old Kennedy nailed the challenge.
“It can be very tricky because everyone is a little off balance in this snow and I can’t touch another skier, so I have to be very careful with how I’m moving through the group and be cognizant of what’s happening because you don’t know how the skis are going to run until you are on course,” said Kennedy.
The veteran Canucks were able to capitalize on the slow conditions to hunt down a faster, younger field.
“It’s very difficult to ski well in these conditions. You can see it in any race where there are wet conditions,” added McKeever. “I think for us it is probably an advantage because we don’t have as much pure speed and power as some of the younger guys, but this is more about finesse.”
Led by Kennedy’s perfect race tactics, the Canadian duo made their move on the field while driving their way up the long, gradual climb on the backside of the course.
Taking the outside lane down the last hill and into the finishing stretch the Canucks topped Jake Adicoff and Sam Wood of the United States while powering their way to the line.
Sweden’s Zebastian Modin and Emil Joensson Haag held on for the bronze medal.
Minutes before McKeever’s triumph, Natalie Wilkie raced to her fifth career Paralympic podium. Starting 16 seconds back of the leaders, the 21-year-old reeled in four of the six athletes in her heat while charging up the long climb. Wilkie sling shotted past Norway’s Vilde Nilsen while rounding into the stadium.
“I’m in shock. It feels unreal to win the gold,” said Wilkie, who also won the distance race earlier in the week in addition to a complete set of medals at the 2018 Games as a rookie. “I knew heading into this I had a really good shot, but there are so many things going on in the sprint that there is never a guarantee.
“Norway had that massive lead until the finishing chute where I outskied Vilde. It feels pretty good to say that I’m now a three-time Paralympic champion.”
Sydney Peterson, of the United States, grabbed the bronze medal.
Like Wilkie, Collin Cameron skied to his fifth career Paralympic podium. The 33-year-old powered through the soft snow on the 900-metre course to claim his second Paralympic bronze medal of the week.
“This is the race I came here for,” said Cameron, whose Paralympic medals are all the same colour. “I had some big expectations coming in. This is the most fun event we do, and I really wanted to win this, but I’m happy with third. All of my competitors here are the best in the world, so it was great to go out there, race the best and see what happens.”
China’s Zheng Peng and Mao Zhongwu finished one-two in the classification.
Canada’s Paralympic rookie, Christina Picton, also had a solid outing, making the finals in the head-to-head heats. The Fonthill, Ont. resident was sixth.
“Getting into the final was my big goal. When you see the field, it looks pretty daunting so I am so proud and happy to make it to the final,” said Picton. “This gets me excited to head into the next quad, start training and see what I can do.”
Hongqiong Yang won the women’s sit-ski classification.
Athletes will now take a day off before the action resumes on Friday with the biathlon distance events.
Check out CBC’s streaming and TV viewing guide to catch all of the Para-Nordic action in Beijing.