In their first World Cup in more than a year, the Canadian Para-Nordic team did nothing but impress, picking up two medals Friday in Vuokatti, Finland.
41-year-old star Brian McKeever and his guide Russell Kennedy (both from Canmore, Alta.) struck gold in the men's 12.5-kilometre visually impaired race, while Brittany Hudak (Prince Albert, Sask.) picked up a bronze medal in one of her better performances in the middle-distance classic cross-country ski races in Vuokatti, Finland.
Kennedy, who had competed in the 2018 Olympics before being a guide for McKeever, and fresh off a breakthrough season in the World Cup circuit and world championships, set a blazing pace for McKeever for whom the race served as a test of his shape.
"That was hard on an old man, especially when the guy in front of me is coming off a top-30 at the World Championships," McKeever said. "It was a good start today. The course is pretty flat and does not have a whole lot of recovery on it, so we were working the whole way and I'm quite tired but it was a really good effort today.
"It was really cool to see Russ' shape. He did amazingly well today looking over his shoulder, being super attentive that he was not getting too far ahead of me, and talking through the race."
McKeever had spent the last month in Europe helping test skis for Kennedy and Canada's Olympic pathway athletes at the recent world junior/U23 championships and senior world championships while the Para-Nordic season was on hiatus until this month due to the pandemic. He is currently looking to make it to his sixth Paralympics come 2022.
"It was really good for me to be at world juniors and world champs just to be around racing. It was quite chill until the day before the race and then everything changed for the staff, athletes and everyone on the team. You know when it is go time. Everything jumps to a new level so that was good for me to experience and go through it today."
Sweden's Zebastian Modin, finished tied for second with Russia's Stanislav Chokhlaev.
'Beyond grateful and excited to get to put a race bib on' says Hudak
As for Hudak, it was her first career podium finish since the middle-distance races were changed to 10 km for women.
It also happened to be the first Para-Nordic World Cup podium finish in cross-country skiing for her in five years, and her fourth ever middle-distance podium. The other three, including a third-place finish at the 2015 Para-Nordic World Cup at the same venue in Vuokatti, came in the 7.5-km distance.
"With this being my first international race of the season, I was beyond excited and grateful to get to put a race bib on again," Hudak said. "Going a full year without international races really solidified how much I love racing and travelling with the team.
"I'm super happy to be starting off the World Cup with a podium finish. I've felt satisfied with a good year of training, so I was eager to see where my fitness was at amongst my competitors."
Norway's Vilde Nilsen took gold, while Russia's Ekaterina Rumyantseva earned silver.
The Canadian team will be looking for more medals on Saturday when the Para-Nordic World Cup continues with the sprint races.