A couple Fridays ago, I got a call from a friend in the middle of the day. I thought the timing odd given his busy work schedule, but because I was participating in a webinar, I let the call go to voice mail and sent him a text message asking what was up. The words that popped up on my cell phone screen sent a chill down my spine.
“My aunt was biking this morning and a motorist hit her and killed her,” he wrote.
It was a sad introduction to a phenomenal woman I will never have the opportunity to meet.
It turns out my friend’s aunt wasn’t just anyone out for a leisurely ride when the worst possible thing happened. Her name was Karen McKeachie, and she was an internationally-acclaimed triathlete who throughout her 63 years challenged just about every preconception related to gender, age, and the limitations of the human body.
McKeachie’s professional racing career included six world championships, nine Ironman triathlons in Kona, Hawaii (among them an 8th place finish among women), and 15 age-group national championships.
At 58, she beat out competitors half her age to win the overall title in a major triathlon, becoming what is believed to be the oldest athlete to accomplish such a feat.
Two years ago, she was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.
And her contributions to the sport extend beyond her personal athletic endeavors.
With her husband and fellow triathlete Lew Kidder, she founded the magazine Triathlon Today!, the precursor to Inside Triathlon. She spent decades directing marathons, triathlons, and other races. She started what may have been the very first triathlon equipment mail-order business. And she coached athletes including Olympian Sheila Taormina.
Oh yeah, she was also an inventor. Fed up by the existing options at the time, McKeachie, an engineer by trade, is credited with creating the first women’s bicycle saddle in her basement using a saw and duct tape for the prototype. Her friend, journalist, and fellow triathlete Tom Demerly calls her “one of the greatest endurance athletes in all of history,” writing in a remembrance on his blog:
“She never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, never wore an Olympic Gold Medal around her neck – but she did collect stacks of world and national championship medals, overall race wins, age group victories and accolades and more importantly, did the heavy lifting of getting other women into the sport, and the sport into the Olympics.”
McKeachie first discovered the triathlon almost accidentally in 1982 when she took her husband’s spot in a race after he opted not to compete because he feared the water was too cold. She placed third among women in that race and was hooked.
Her athleticism was evident from a young age. In a radio interview last year, McKeachie described growing up in rural Michigan where “there weren’t any sports for girls,” so she played football with the boys in her neighborhood. This would become a running theme in her life – playing with, and often beating, boys at sports, and early on at least, frustratingly few available outlets into which to channel her athletic interest and ability.
In high school in the late 1960s, she wanted to join the track team and bested all but two of the boys in a practice race. The coach agreed to let her join if the rest of the team was ok with it, but the boys she beat out refused to let her on, her husband told the Detroit Free Press.
At the University of Michigan in the mid-1970s, McKeachie’s competitive spirit again ran up against a wall when the university athletic director said she couldn’t represent the school in a cross country event. Undeterred, she had her mother sew an M onto a yellow jersey and ran anyway, placing 8th overall. Her homemade jersey now hangs in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, according to Kidder.
Throughout her too-short life, McKeachie continued to train hard and compete, biking as many as 300 miles each week until the very end.
She was out on a training ride near her hometown of Ann Arbor August 26th when she was hit by a Chevrolet Avalanche driven by a 70-year-old man police said veered into McKeachie’s lane while trying to pass the car in front of him. The two women McKeachie was riding with careened into a nearby ditch and survived.
Like most people who ride bikes, hearing of someone killed while biking feels very personal in a way that many other tragedies do not. I think the collective anguish and outrage we feel over these types of incidents is fueled by the knowledge that it very well could have been us in the bike saddle or, perhaps more horrifically, on the receiving end of a phone call none of us ever wants to get.
The news of McKeachie’s death has shaken me more than most bike-related tragedies. If someone of such caliber and skill, who no doubt was doing everything right, who knew how to handle herself on a bike, was not immune from the dangers of the road, certainly none of us are.
It has left me as a new, highly-sensitized and somewhat paranoid parent questioning the responsibility of getting into the bike saddle in a country that continues to sacrifice the safety of its people to the convenience of moving them quickly in cars. It reminds me that we aren’t the only ones responsible for our own safety and that we have to do more as a society to promote defensive driving, better enforcement of the rules of the road, and a built environment that accounts for the safety of all road users.
I’m still not sure how to reconcile the very real risks of riding my bike with the many benefits of doing so. But this past weekend, I strapped my infant son into a bike trailer and took him on his very first bike ride. Quite consciously, my husband and I staged this auspicious event on a protected trail in the suburbs rather than on the city streets where we would normally ride.
I thought about Karen.
I find myself wondering what she would have done had she been one of the women who survived last month’s crash. Based on what I’ve learned over the past couple weeks, I doubt she would retreat for very long. Some of the people closest to her agreed.
“I think she would be back on the roads, maybe dirt roads for a while, but back nevertheless,” her sister-in-law told me in an email. Already, Karen’s husband Lew has returned to the saddle, she added, biking almost daily with Karen’s friends in a most-fitting tribute to his late wife.
Emilie Bahr is a writer, urban planner, and healthy communities advocate living in New Orleans. She is the author of the book Urban Revolutions: A woman’s guide to two-wheeled transportation.