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

Xavier McKeever is no stranger to cross-country skiing's biggest stages.

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

Now the 19-year-old from Canmore, Alta., is taking his family's experience and carving his own tracks in the snow.

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

McKeever grew up on the road, first travelling with his mom, three-time Olympian Milanie Theriault, as she competed on the World Cup ski circuit.

Later, he joined his dad, Robin McKeever — who skied for Canada at the 1998 Nagano Olympics — at training camps and competitions for Canada's Para Nordic team. Robin McKeever guided his brother, legendary Canadian Para skier Brian McKeever, to 10 of his record-setting 20 Paralympic medals before becoming the squad's coach in 2011.

Xavier McKeever knows his was an unusual childhood.

“It was kind of crazy, obviously. Definitely a different upbringing than most people, or most kids would have," he said.

“I consider myself lucky to have the chance to experience that kind of upbringing and have the chance to travel around and see new places and be around so many athletes. And I think being around athletes on the Para team was really inspiring to me.”

One memory Xavier holds on to is from the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver and Whistler. Bits of the opening ceremonies have stuck with him over the years and he still recalls hanging out with athletes at Canada House.

And then there's the moment he stood with his dad 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 a little bit spotty, for sure," Xavier said. "But I remember running up to the podium and getting on the podium with my uncle, my dad, for sure.”

There was symmetry for the McKeever family last weekend when Xavier returned to Whistler to compete in the nordic junior world ski championships. After qualifying for the head-to-head sprint heats, he finished in 16th place.

The races took place at the same venue where his uncle, guided by his dad, took three Paralympic gold medals in 2010.

“It stirs up emotions for me," Robin McKeever said. "2010 was sort of the ending of my career with guiding Brian and the shift to full-time coaching. … So knowing what it’s like to compete on a high level, and watching (Xavier) kind of follow in that and just sort of naturally do it is really cool.”

Xavier said his parents never pushed him toward cross-country skiing, encouraging him instead to try other sports.

He played soccer in the summer — something that he said helped his reaction time — and spent years as a speedskater, which helped his balance and leg strength.

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

Asked whether he felt pressure to perform because of his family's prominence in cross-country, the young athlete was decisive.

"Definitely not," he said. "I'm taking the path forward that I want to take. … It's my career, I have control over it. And I think that just helps me a lot. The only pressure I really feel is just kind of like the pressure I put on myself sometimes."

Currently in his final year of junior competition, Xavier said he hasn't talked much with his family about what comes 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 right now, Xavier is taking his skiing career one event at a time. The focus, he said, is on process instead of goals or results.

"If your process is good, and you follow your process, well, then the results will come at the end," he said.

Perspective is part of what makes Xavier special as an up-and-coming athlete, said Robin McKeever, who took over as head coach of Canada's cross-country ski team last April.

"He’s many years advanced over a lot of athletes I’ve worked with. And it's because of the knowledge that he's gained through both parents having been at those top levels," he said.

“For any athletes, the reality of it is the pressures of any competition can get to them, if a lot of people think that you're going to do something special, but you don't have the actual mental preparation to follow through.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press