With an eye on eight individual medals and one relay medal, Canada’s Para Nordic team went into the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in PyeongChang with big goals. To their delight, they reached, and surpassed those goals by a huge margin, bringing home a whopping 16 medals for Canada.
It’s was a phenomenal performance from a powerhouse team, led by Paralympic superstars Brian McKeever and Mark Arendz, but it wasn’t long ago that the team was struggling to find their way.
In 2010, shortly after Canada’s Para Nordic team fell short of expectations, Robin McKeever was thrust into the role of head coach, facing a seventy percent funding cut and a depleted team. New to coaching, but not to racing – he’s a 1998 Olympian and three-time Paralympian as a sighted guide to brother Brian – McKeever jumped in with both feet.
Instead of bemoaning the lack of support, McKeever transformed immediately into a coach with a keen sense of what was necessary to build a world-leading Para Nordic team for Canada.
With a team of one – Brian, who has become Canada’s most decorated winter Paralympian with 14 medals – Robin had a star pupil who was already an elite, professional athlete around whom he could assemble an expert support team and develop new athletes in the program.
With an open mind, McKeever absorbed what he needed to learn the art of coaching. After listening to speed skating coach, Marcel Lacroix, speak at a COC Olympic Excellence Series event, he tuned in to a key point made by Lacroix about the importance of finding the right people to work with, in this case a sport psychologist that had made a big difference for his team.
From that point, McKeever took on the task of building the team of support staff. “I was looking specifically for people to work for me, not against me,” recalls McKeever. “It was about building trust with all the different practitioners.”
Because Brian McKeever had already worked closely with staff from CSI Calgary for many years, Para Nordic and coach Robin, realized that the team as a whole could benefit from the expertise of CSI Calgary service providers to enhance the overall team performance.
A training group agreement with CSI Calgary was struck and over time McKeever pieced together his ideal Integrated Support Team (IST). For McKeever, the most important thing was for the IST to operate under the same goal. “Everyone has to work for the same common goal on the same program,” he says. “The result is that athletes come into that support and leave with very few questions.”
Brian continued to build on his own success in the sport and his elite level helped drive the professionalism of the program. “Brian was already a phenomenal athlete,” says Robin. “That helped bring the other athletes up.” CSI Calgary Director of Sport Science Dr. David Smith agrees. “Over time, a training and coaching philosophy has been developed so that when new, young Para Nordic skiers join the team their performances accelerate due to training and teamwork protocols,” he explains.
Brian McKeever’s 16-year podium parade was sustained by an incredible amount of hard work and the help of the IST. This enabled the development of more elite skiers and biathletes, like Mark Arendz, who won six medals in PyeongChang; Collin Cameron, who switched to Para Nordic from sledge hockey in 2015 and picked up three bronze medals in the sit ski classification; Natalie Wilke, just 17, who also won multiple medals; and Emily Young who won a bronze in the 10km biathlon pursuit.
The depth of the team is remarkable considering where they were in 2010 and 2014. The big highlight from PyeongChang for coach McKeever was how awesome it was to have staff working for a common goal. “It was the number one key to the team’s success,” he proclaims. “To 16 medals.”
Canadian Sport Institute Calgary: @csicalgary
Written by Kristina Groves: @kngrover
Photo by: Dave Holland @csicalgaryphoto