Twelve years ago, a young Xavier McKeever watched his father and uncle take to the trails in Whistler. The 2010 Winter Paralympic Games were in full swing, hot on the heels of an Olympic cycle that inspired an entire nation. McKeever’s uncle, Brian, had already made history at that point as the first athlete named to both an Olympic and a Paralympic national team. Yet he didn’t get to compete in the 2010 Olympics as coach Inge Braten elected to deploy four others— Alex Harvey, Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov and George Grey—in that year’s 50-kilometre cross-country race.
Brian McKeever was angry. He cried. Then, he wiped away his tears and took firm hold of the opportunity he still had to represent Canada on a global stage. Guided by his brother, Robin, Brian earned three victories at the Whistler Paralympics. He would, of course, finish his landmark career as one of the most dominant athletes in Canadian history, with 20 medals—16 of them gold—on his unmatched resume.
However, this story isn’t about Brian. It’s about his nephew, who drew lifelong inspiration from Brian and Robin’s achievements at the 2010 Paralympic Games. Today, Xavier is one of Nordiq Canada’s hottest prospects. He is coming off three top-10 results at the 2022 FIS Nordic Junior World Ski Championships and looks to improve upon that at month’s end, when the World Juniors return to Whistler.
How it began
Though Xavier began skiing at two years old, he also tried many other sports as a young child. His father, Robin, and mother, Milaine Theriault, wanted to introduce him to different activities rather than pigeonhole him into their trajectory as Olympic cross-country skiers. But there was no steering Xavier away from the sport that runs in his family’s blood.
Most people think of cruising down a breathtaking mountain when they hear the word “skiing,” but Xavier is proud of the discipline he’s dedicated his life to. He sees it as a great way for people to stay healthy, regardless of their athleticism or commitment to sport.
“I know a lot of people who do cross- country skiing just to get out and stay in shape,” he said.
Xavier, of course, has higher aspirations than that. His first two gold medals came when he was only 11, at the Alberta Winter Games. In 2019, he represented Canada for the first time as the youngest athlete in that year’s junior worlds event. In 2020, he helped make history.
At 16 years old, Xavier skied the opening leg of the 4x5-kilometre relay at the 2020 World Juniors in Oberwiesenthal, Germany, helping Canada to its first-ever 4x5 relay medal at the World Championships of any level. Looking back, Xavier is proud of how he and his teammates showcased the continuing quality of Nordiq Canada after the retirement of a five-time FIS World Championship medalist Alex Harvey.
“After he retired, people were raising a lot of questions like, what’s next?” he remembered. “What are we going to do now with skiing in Canada?
“Being able to achieve that medal performance in such a stacked field in that relay was really a big moment to set the belief in our country that...we can do this. We can get to [Harvey’s] level again.”
Yet, a difficult 2021 forced Xavier to rediscover his belief in himself.
How it's going
Thanks to COVID-19, the 2021 World Juniors were the only Nordic ski races of that season. Xavier performed well below his own expectations and those of others, finishing outside the top 36 in both of his individual events. Unsatisfied, the Canmore, Alta. native knew he needed to “hit a reset button” on the mental side of his sport.
“Psychology is such an important part of [cross-country skiing] because it’s really tough on the body,” he said. “If your mental performance isn’t good, then you’re going to have some difficulties.”
That’s why he reached out to an old mentor: sports psychologist Richard Monette. Xavier had met Monette through a school connection in his Grade 11 year and found working with the performance coach to be immensely helpful. Their renewed partnership paid dividends, as Xavier finished fourth, fifth and sixth in three disciplines at last year’s World Juniors.
“There were so many questions going into this season,” he said. “Getting to race a fuller schedule and building my confidence back were really important.”
Xavier last visited the Sea to Sky in March 2022 for the Canadian National Cross-Country Championship, but news of the World Juniors returning to Whistler generated a lot of excitement within Nordiq Canada circles. He expects the upcoming competition to be a special, full-circle moment, and is preparing himself for the Sea to Sky’s unpredictable weather.
Obviously, Xavier would love to win a gold medal in the same place that his father and uncle did more than a decade ago. That said, he isn’t losing sight of what needs to be done to realize that dream. Mentors like Brian McKeever and Monette have helped him learn the importance of doing everything he can, every day, to be a good athlete, rather than focus on where he might finish in the standings.
“The process always comes first,” Xavier said. “The results come second.”