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Xavier McKeever carves out own cross-country ski path amid family legacy

Xavier McKeever is no stranger to cross-country skiing’s greatest stages. As the son of two Olympians and nephew of one of Canada’s most decorated para athletes, he has long seen what it takes to compete at the highest level in sport.

Xavier McKeever is no stranger to cross-country skiing’s greatest stages.

As the son of two Olympians and nephew of one of Canada’s most decorated para athletes, he has long seen what it takes to compete at the highest level in sport.

Now the 19-year-old from Canmore, Alta. is using his family’s experience to make his own tracks in the snow.

“My family, we’re very involved in the sport,” he said in a phone interview from Whistler, BC. “Obviously they have their own legacies. And I’m trying to create my own legacy and my own way forward.”

McKeever grew up on the road, first traveling with his mother, three-time Olympian Milanie Theriault, when she competed on the World Cup ski circuit.

He later accompanied his father, Robin McKeever – who skied for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics – to training camps and competitions for the Canada Para Nordic Team. Robin McKeever guided his brother, legendary Canadian para-skier Brian McKeever, to 10 of his record-breaking 20 Paralympic medals before becoming the team’s coach in 2011.

Xavier McKeever knows he had an unusual childhood.

“It was kind of crazy, of course. Definitely a different upbringing than most people or most kids,” he said.

“I feel lucky to have the chance to experience that kind of education and to have the chance to travel around, see new places and be with so many athletes. And I think it was really inspiring for me to be around athletes on the Para team.”

One memory Xavier holds onto is from the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver and Whistler. Bits of the opening ceremony stuck with him over the years and he still remembers hanging out with athletes at Canada House.

And then there’s the moment he stood with his father and uncle as they were presented with gold medals.

“I was pretty young. I was only six years old. So my memory of the games as a whole is certainly a bit patchy,” said Xavier. “But I sure remember running to the podium and getting on the podium with my uncle, my dad.”

Symmetry reigned for the McKeever family last weekend as Xavier returned to Whistler to compete in the Nordic World Junior Ski Championships. After qualifying for the head-to-head sprint runs, he finished 16th.

The races took place at the same location where his uncle won three Paralympic gold medals in 2010 under his father’s tutelage.

“It stirs emotions in me,” said Robin McKeever. “2010 was kind of the end of my career as I managed Brian and transitioned into full-time coaching. … So to know what it’s like to compete at a high level and to see how (Xavier) kind of follows that and just kind of does it naturally is really cool.”

Xavier said his parents never pushed him into cross-country skiing and instead encouraged him to try other sports.

He played football in the summers – something he said helped his reaction time – and spent years speed skating, which benefited his balance and leg strength.

The balance seems to have paid off – Xavier was part of Canada’s silver medal-winning junior relay team at the 2020 World Championships.

When asked whether he felt pressure to perform because of his family’s fame in cross-country skiing, the young athlete gave the crucial answer.

“Definitely not,” he said. “I’m going forward the way I want to go. … It’s my career, I’m in control of it. And I think that helps me a lot. The only pressure I really feel is something like the pressure I put on myself sometimes.”

Xavier is currently in his final year in junior competition and said he hasn’t spoken much with his family about what’s next.

It’s possible he could become the latest McKeever to ski for Canada at the 2026 Winter Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, but for now, Xavier is taking his skiing career one event at a time. The focus, he said, is on the process rather than goals or outcomes.

“If your process is good and you follow your process, then the results will come in the end,” he said.

Perspective is part of what makes Xavier special as an aspiring athlete, said Robin McKeever, who took over as head coach of the Canadian cross-country team last April.

“He’s many years ahead of many athletes I’ve worked with. And that’s because of the knowledge he’s gained from having both parents at those top levels,” he said.

“The reality for any athlete is that the pressure of any competition can come to them when a lot of people think you’re going to do something special, but you don’t have the actual mental preparation to pull it off. ”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 1, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press

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