Canadian Cross-Country Ski Athletes Win Double Gold, Bronze at Paralympic Winter Games
BEIJING, Chn— Canada’s cross-country ski athletes owned the podium with a triple medal day in the distance races at the Paralympic Winter Games on Monday.
Natalie Wilkie (Salmon Arm, B.C.) captured her fourth career Paralympic medal after winning the women’s standing race, while her teammate – Brittany Hudak (Prince Albert, Sask.) – picked up her first cross-country ski medal at the Paralympics taking the bronze. Brian McKeever (Canmore, Alta.), with the help of his guide Russell Kennedy (Canmore, Alta.), won his 14 Paralympic title in the men’s visually impaired race.
The 21-year-old Wilkie dominated the field in the women’s 15-kilometre classic-ski race, winning with a time of 48:04.8.
“I did it. I just went hard and waited for everyone to catch me, but nobody did. I am so happy,” said Wilkie, who won a gold in the middle distance, silver in the relay and a bronze in the sprint events at the 2018 Paralympics as a 17-year-old when she was just two years removed from losing four fingers on her left hand following a school woodshop accident.
Wilkie set the fastest opening split and continued to increase her lead on the world while skiing steady and composed in her three loops.
“It is unreal. I went into this race trying not to think about the end result but to focus on the process and ski as well as I could. I was completely surprised that my coaches kept yelling splits at me that I was in the lead. I just kept building from there and tried not to let it get into my head. At the end of the day that was enough to win the gold medal. This is for sure one of the best races that I have ever done.”
Wilkie’s teammate, Brittany Hudak, also had a career-best cross-country ski race. A biathlon bronze medallist at the 2018 Games, the 28-year-old Hudak increased her pace midway through the longest race on the Paralympic schedule to claim her first-ever cross-country ski medal at the Games with a third-place time of 49:27.8.
“It is such a surreal feeling. All of us girls have worked so hard these last couple of years. We have such great teamwork and that has paid off for us,” said an emotional Hudak. “Natalie and I were getting the splits off each other. It is such an amazing day to get to share the podium with Natalie, and to have Emily(Young) just off the podium, shows we have put in the work together and that we are stronger together. I think we are all better athletes for it.”
Sandwiched between the two Canadians on the podium was Sydney Peterson, of the United States. Peterson won the silver medal with a time of 49:00.2.
North Vancouver’s Emily Young was also in the podium hunt. The two-time Paralympic medallist clocked a fifth-place time of 52:06.7.
The Canadian trail to the Nordic podium began on Monday with Brian McKeever and Russell Kennedy.
Canada’s most accomplished winter Paralympic athlete added another gold to his legendary Paralympic career, bringing his total to 14 after a victory in the men’s visually impaired classic-ski race.
“It was great today. These races are never easy. Today was the result of good teamwork with fantastic skis,” said the 42-year-old McKeever, who has won the last four Paralympic 20-kilometre races. He also skied to the silver medal at Turin 2006.
“We made a stressful decision to go without kick wax on a classic day and use only double pole. When we realized that was the right call, then it was just fun. Sometimes the risks pay off in big ways, and today was one of those.”
It sure did.
Franticly trying to select the best skis for the man-made snow conditions, the Canadian duo posted a time of 55:36.7 and waited to see if the world could catch them.
Nobody came close.
“Every one of these races gets more stressful at the start. We are in a place we have never been. We didn’t know what the snow was like so all of these stressful factors add up,” added McKeever. “There was some stress today, but that is why it was more fun. When you have these perfect days, you just smile and enjoy it.”
The Canadians were beaming at the finish as they greeted Jake Adicoff and his guide Sam Wood of the United States, who were the next best finishers more than three minutes back at 58:54.4. McKeever’s top rival, Sweden’s Zebastian Modin and Emil Joensson Haag, were third with a time of 1:00:05.5.
Arguably in the best shape of his life having competed most of the season on the World Cup and at Canada’s Olympic trials, the 30-year-old Kennedy played a critical role in setting the tone for the Canucks.
“We had lots of discussion today with it being a 20k and at elevation. The plan was to take it out slightly comfortable and build, said Kennedy. “We took it out at a good pace and did keep building. As soon as we realized how good our skis were, and how fast we were moving, we just calmed down and skied a very steady race.”
His 18th medal across his six Paralympic Games may have been McKeever’s most dominant performance yet.
“Most of our days all year are spent doing the hard work. This (racing at the Paralympics) is the proof – the end of the job,” said McKeever. “On these days we just try to have our best, but the reality of sport is you can have your best day and sometimes still lose. If that is the case, then somebody else was just better.
“You can never predict where you finish. You just try to have a really good day, and say that was the best we could do, and today we did.”
Canada’s Mark Arendz finished off the Paralympic podium for the first time in eight races after placing fourth in the 20-kilometre standing classification. The Hartsville, P.E.I. resident posted a time of 54:43.9.
“I did everything I could. I got a little behind off the start but couldn’t quite make it up. i just didn’t have it over the longer distance,” said Arendz. “I’m quite strong in classic. The guys in the wax room gave me good skis. I just couldn’t convert it into podium success today.”
Japan’s Taiki Kawayoke won the classification with a time of 52:52.8. China’s Jiayun Cai was second at 54:27.7, while Mingyang Qiu claimed the bronze medal at 54:29.7.
Check out CBC’s streaming and TV viewing guide to catch all of the Para-Nordic action in Beijing.
Complete Paralympic Biathlon Results: https://www.paralympic.org/beijing-2022/results