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Blind skier crushed that he won't race for Canada

ARNIE STAPLETON,

AP Sports Writer

Updated February 28, 2010

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)

WHISTLER, British Columbia (AP) It would have been one of the more heartwarming stories of the Vancouver Games: A legally blind Canadian cross-country skier was all set to become the first winter sports athlete to compete in the Paralympics and Olympics.

But the Canadians benched Brian McKeever for Sunday's grand finale, the men's 50-kilometer classical mass start race, denying him the chance to triumph for the seeing-impaired and many others living with physical, emotional or psychological challenges.

Not because of his disability - but his abilities.

The harsh reality: he's just not good enough.

"I don't think we can fairly ask others to stand aside. It's their dreams, too," said Dave Wood, one of Canada's coaches. "We're being fair. We're being fair to our sport. We're telling people to be as best as you can and when they are, you have to let them participate."

So, the team will instead race Alex Harvey, Ivan Babikov, Devon Kershaw and George Grey, all of whom have top-10 finishes here. Under International Ski Federation rules, the team can only enter four skiers.

Canadian coach Inge Braten said these four were simply faster than McKeever.

"They can fight for a medal, all four of them," said Braten, who called the decision the toughest of his coaching career, which has spanned 44 years.

At the same time, it was an easy call.

"No, it wasn't close," Wood said. "The four boys that will start the 50K are our best four guys right now."

McKeever, 30, who still has his peripheral vision, never wanted special treatment when he started going blind in college, but he was crushed by the decision.

"Olympic dream over," he wrote on his Twitter account. "I don't think I've ever been so sad."

He cried when informed he wouldn't get to compete in the Olympics.

"It's not something I ever hoped to hear," McKeever said. "I'm not happy, and I'm very, very crushed by the decision."

Canadian Sara Renner, who finished 13th in the women's 30K classical race Saturday, said she skied the last Olympic race of her career with a heavy heart because of McKeever's benching.

"I was thinking today I wish Brian was a girl because we had two extra spots," Renner said. "But the men, they're just so strong right now. I skied with Brian's thoughts with me today, too."

McKeever, who will participate in the Paralympics here next month, said he can see his coach's reasoning.

"Our boys are racing so fast that they deserve everything they got," said McKeever, who only sees a fuzzy blob when he looks straight ahead because of a degenerative, genetic eye condition known as Stargardt's disease.

"It's the strongest men's team we've ever fielded, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of it," he said. "... We had five guys for four spots."

Some nations don't use all four allotments for the grueling final race of the Olympics. Rather than risk injury or burnout in the 50K, they send some of their top athletes ahead to focus on the World Cup circuit.

Not Canada.

"When Brian qualified for the Olympic team, he's an Olympic team member, the same as everybody else," Wood said. "And I think we can't really ask others to stand aside. I guess, they could if they wanted to, but everybody's here to race a the Olympics, and race as well as they can at the Olympics."

The news upset some Canadians who saw McKeever's part in the Olympics as a matter of intense national pride, and it also disappointed advocates for the disabled.

Wood said the Canadians simply couldn't let sentimentality factor into the equation.

"The four best guys are starting," he said.

McKeever said he takes solace in simply making the Olympic team, which "in itself was a big victory."

"It didn't end the way I wanted ..." he said, his voice trailing off tears began streaming down his cheeks.

A seven-time medalist in the Paralympics, McKeever has enough vision to see what he needs to by looking around the object or person. In Paralympic competitions, he has relied on a guide on the course who went ahead of him and showed him the way.

Without a guide at the Olympics, he had planned to find a skier of similar speed to follow.

Looking back, McKeever doesn't regret skipping the opening ceremonies to conserve energy for this race.

"It was a beautiful ceremony," he said. "I wish I could have been there. But it's still all about performance here. ... I was still hoping to be one of the top guys."

And he still does - in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

"Four years is a long time, but I'm really looking forward to trying again," he said, "and hopefully getting a race there."

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