EVENT DATE: Jun 15, 2016
Having grown up in Hawaii, water has been Barry McKeown’s refuge since he was a 5th grader and jumped into water sports from surfing, surf skis to canoeing. It remains his refuge but not just for sport any longer – he needs the water to keep strong and healthy. He joined the Navy after school returning to Hawaii – to the water and to building a life. An admitted adrenaline junkie, a family friend who operated an ambulance service asked if Barry might want to join them on the road. He thrived on the challenge and got his EMS certificate racing around the streets of Honolulu with an unshakable ability to handle tough situations calmly, keeping a steady pace under pressure. When he wasn’t in the truck, he was in the water becoming a semi-pro surfer and fishing for barracuda. On one outing, he and his teammates were dragging hand line while cross training on surf skis when someone shouted at Barry to “look out” then again “look out” with more urgency. Barry turned around to see not a barracuda on his drag line but a 16 foot tiger shark mouth open charging his ski. He paddled harder and faster than he thought possible to a near-by rock island and collapsed, his first real race won.
Barry was one of the first members of the Kailua Hawaiian Civil Canoe Club before joining Lanikai Outrigger Canoe then the Hui Nalo Canoe Club. After 20 years as an EMS professional and racing, now a husband and father of three, Barry’s life changed one night after a terrible car accident left him in a coma for 12 days. He woke to find a tooth gone, his face practically cut in half and unable to move his legs. He pressed the call button and insisted that the nurse get a doctor to tell him how he was going to fix this – take care of this, we have to fix this only to gradually understand that was not going to happen. During his rehab, Barry was placed in the pool and immediate felt that same communion with the water. It became his most important coping mechanism allowing him to regain his strength and independence as well as his desire to rebuild his life. Knowing he couldn’t continue his EMS work, he looked into nursing programs. University of Hawaii actually turned him down saying they couldn’t make an exception for a paraplegic in the program but Barry didn’t want to be an exception, he just wanted a chance. Undaunted, he applied to Hawaii Pacific University where he was fitted with an electric stand up chair to help him complete his pediatrics rounds “you have to be able to work with the infants in the incubators; you have to be able to hold babies”. He graduated with a Persistence Award as one of the few, if not the first, paraplegic nurses in the country; another win.
Recruited by Alta Bates and Michigan State University, McKeown accepted the position in Berkeley and began his career as a distinguished health care professional. Within years, he was asked to join the SF VA Medical Center as one of the Advice Nurses, a job he loves.
Convinced that water could be an integral part in recovery for any disabled person, he continued to race and coach disabled and able bodied enthusiasts in canoeing. In 2008 after the International World Sprints, McKeown was exposed to Tahitian V1 one man rudderless canoes. With the support of Operation Rebound and Challenged Athletes Foundation, he was fitted with a one of a kind canoe with a special chair, strapping system and balancing mechanism fashioned from a small surf board attached to the canoe. Since then he has trained and coached with the Benicia Outrigger Canoe Club racing with and against both disabled and able bodied competitors. He placed 3rd in the 2012 Nationals, 1st in the 2013 100 Relay, a two man, 100 mile race down the Sacramento River as the only disabled athlete. He placed 1st in the Angel Island 2 man canoe race, again as the only disabled athlete.
In September, he faced another challenge when his one of a kind canoe was destroyed in transit to the Oklahoma games and instead of finishing first, he couldn’t even begin the race. While he trains 1-2 hours a day swimming in the pool and hand cycling, his dream of competing in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio is dead in the water. He continues to paddle with a 6 man team 3 times a week but it’s not the same. 2016 is the first time 1 man outrigger canoes are eligible for qualification in the games and there is no other competitor more qualified to take the Gold than McKeown. While he remains too humble to admit it, he is a pioneer in nursing and in sport and as he said before, he doesn’t want to be an exception, he just wants a chance.