PYEONGCHANG, Kor.—A Paralympic legend and a teenage rookie propelled Canada’s cross-country ski team to four trips to the podium in the final day of individual competition in PyeongChang, Korea.
The 38-year-old Brian McKeever completed the rare “triple treble” – sweeping all three individual men’s country ski events for the third consecutive Paralympic Winter Games – after winning the visually impaired 10-kilometre classic-ski race on Saturday. The youngest member of the Canadian Paralympic Team, 17-year-old, Natalie Wilkie took the celebration to a whole new level after knocking off all of the top Para-nordic names on the planet to win the women’s 7.5-kilometre standing classic-ski race.
“This feels good. That one was hard today and was a lot closer than the others,” said McKeever. “Today was all about teamwork. There was a huge temperature change so we were out very early as a team testing new skis with our wax techs for 90 minutes before the race even started. It was a huge effort by everyone today.”
The teamwork continued on the start line as McKeever exercised a two-guide strategy once again. With Graham Nishikawa (Whitehorse) leading the way, the Canadians were four seconds behind their top challenger, Sebastien Modin, until the midway mark of the race where they overtook the Swede. As Russell Kennedy (Canmore, Alta.) took the lead in guiding the 13-time Paralympic champion for the final four-kilometres, the Canadians were opening their lead on the field when Modin took a hard fall on a downhill and pulled out of the race. The Canucks clocked in at 23:17.8.
“Sebastian had a pretty hard crash and I’m most concerned about him because he is a very good friend and you don’t want to win that way,” said McKeever. “It was a good fight today. We knew when to hit it and when to pull back. It’s nice to complete what we set out to do.”
American Jake Adicoff finished second at 24:31.3. Yury Holub, of Belarus, claimed the bronze.
While the legend added to his illustrious career with is 16th medal, it was the youngest member of the Canadian Paralympic Team putting the finishing touches to an incredible first chapter of her Paralympic story.
Building on a thrilling bronze-medal sprint finish earlier in the week, Natalie Wilkie will now forever be able to call herself a Paralympic Champion. The Salmon Arm, B.C. resident shared the podium with teammate, Emily Young, who finished third in the women’s standing classification.
“This is crazy awesome. I didn’t think this would happen at all. I’m only 17 and this is my first Paralympics,” said Wilkie, who lost four fingers on her left hand in a wood shop accident at school less than two years ago.
“The difference today was double poling. I just kept telling myself to pretend I was elbowing my older brother.”
With Wilkie in the finish coral having posted a golden time of 22:12.2, North Vancouver’s Emily Young had one thing on her mind while in pursuit of her first Paralympic medal.
“What would Natalie do. I just kept saying ‘What would Natalie be doing,’” laughed the 27-year-old Young, who finished just 1.7 seconds back of the gold medal time set by Wilkie.
“I was trying and trying all week to get onto the podium. I knew this race would be my big chance. I kept telling myself to get this done. There is nothing left in the tank. I didn’t want any more hills. I just wanted to get over the finish line. I left it all out there today.”
Young stopped the clock at 22:13.9. It was looking like a one-two Canadian finish until the dominant Neutral Paralympic Athlete, Ekaterina Rumyantseva, came in at 22:13.8, edging out Young by .1 for the silver.
“It looked like we had one-two finish, but that is okay,” said Young. “Teamwork makes the dream work. The entire team worked together so awesome today. This is just unreal.”
Speaking teamwork, Young played a huge role in leading teammate Brittany Hudak to a bronze-medal biathlon finish on Friday.
“We have put so much work into this as a group, and have been pushing each other all week. We have such good momentum going, and we keep pushing each other to be better,” said Young.
Hudak, of Prince Albert, Sask., placed eighth at 23:49.6.
The historic run for Canada’s Para-Nordic squad in PyeongChang continued with Mark Arendz who won his fifth medal in as many starts.
With a complete set of biathlon medals around his neck, the 28-year-old Arendz captured his second cross-country skiing bronze medal. The Hartsville, P.E.I native clocked the third-place time at 24:27.1 in the men’s 10-kilometre standing division.
“I woke up and felt ready to go. I was racing with a lot of excitement today,” said Arendz. “I was ready for this race. I knew the competition was going to be tough. We were all capable of winning today, but the key for pulling out the bronze was the skis. We had such good speed on the downhills that carried us to the finish today. The work our wax techs are doing is making the difference.”
Arendz now has seven career Paralympic medals. He also has a silver and bronze from the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
“The focus was to come here and race in six out of the seven events. I have one more left to accomplish in the relay, but I got done what I set out to do in biathlon and to get a couple in cross-country is extra special,” said Arendz. “This course here really suits me well and the skis have been great all week.”
Chris Klebl (Canmore, Alta.) was sixth in the men’s 7.5-kilometre sit-skiing race. Derek Zaplotinsky (Smokey Lake, Alta.) was 15th, while Sebastien Fortier (Quebec City) placed 16th, and Etahn Hess (Pemberton, B.C.) finished 28th. Yves Bourque (Bécancour, Que.) rounded out the Canadian men in 31st. Cindy Ouellet (Quebec City) was the lone Canadian in the women’s five-kilometre sit-ski race where she placed 17th.
The Canadian Para-Nordic Team now has a record number of 14 medals at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, with the final two relay races set for Sunday.