Story and Photos by Tom Demerly.
Last week an American woman, Gwen Jorgensen, won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Triathlon in Rio de Janeiro. It is the first Gold Medal the U.S. has ever won in triathlon, a sport we invented.
A few days ago one of the women who is more responsible for the Olympic triathlon movement than any other single female was killed by a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.
She is Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
This is (a very small part of) an enormous story of an incredible life, so I’m going to start back in 1984, at my first triathlon where I met Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.
The Big 10 Triathlon in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a “Half-Ironman”, what we call a 70.3 today.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I saw the Ironman Triathlon on ABC Wide World of Sports, thought it was cool, so here I am. Almost none of us know what we are doing yet. The sport is too young.
Except two people.
They are Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.
I am in awe of Karen and Lew immediately. Lew is tall, thin and commanding. He knows every statistic, every athlete. He knows about bikes, knows how to set up a transition. He also knows Ironman champion Dave Scott, who is making a special appearance at the race today. They chat like old friends. Lew even knows Dave Scott’s dad, Verne. Lew is an attorney and businessman wired into the hierarchy of triathlon government.
Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder are married, and even as early as 1984 they are triathlon’s power couple. They’re from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Midwest hub of an emerging movement called “endurance sports” that loosely includes bicycling and distance running, and this new thing- “tri-ath-alon”. We’re not even sure how to spell it yet.
In a few years Boone Lennon will invent a downhill skier position handlebar or “aerobar” called the Scott DH handlebar. Soon after an ingenious fellow named Dan Empfield will invent a wetsuit made especially for triathlon swimming. Then Empfield will design a bicycle to work with Boone Lennon’s handlebar. And a guy named Steve Hed (say “Head”) will invent a deep-rim wheel for better aerodynamics. Eventually all of them, including Karen Mckeachie, will be inducted into some version of triathlon’s Hall of Fame.
My first race is a disaster. I wind up second from last. But I am in love. In love with a sport that will take me around the world, break my heart, build me up, make me rich and break me poor, nearly kill me and then save my life. And through this conduit I will learn about triathlon, and I will learn about life- especially at first- from Karen and Lew.
Karen and Lew are remarkable people. Laser focused and white-hot driven. At the hub of everything. Constantly training, racing, advocating, organizing, traveling, starting something new, saving something old. Visiting their house is like entering the core of a nuclear reactor. So much is going on it glows with vitality and vigor.
The only things missing from their lives are limitations. There are none.
While Lew is a fascinating man, Karen is quiet- at least at first. She is trained as an engineer, wears her hair in a utilitarian bob, seems to eschew the conspicuous frivolities of gender. I will experience a massive paradigm shift about women because of Karen in about twenty years, so keep reading.
Lew and Karen start a triathlon magazine and I write for them. It’s called Triathlon Today! They start the first ever triathlon equipment mail order company, before Seton Claggett at TriSports.com and before Craig Turner at Nytro.com. The company is run, along with the magazine, from the basement of their house. Later, as both companies grow, from an office in downtown Ann Arbor.
Lew calls and wants me to visit their house off State Street in Ann Arbor across from one of the University of Michigan’s largest sports complexes. He has some new triathlon gear he wants to show me for the magazine.
Karen is downstairs. She is working at a workbench strewn with bicycle tools. There are several bikes in various states of assembly around the room. In the center is a bicycle work stand. The bike on it has a saddle that appears to be held together by tape.
“Did you crash?” I ask Karen.
“No, these saddles kill me. They aren’t made for women riding in aerobars, so I cut out the parts that hurt and made this. It works much better.” She tells me.
Mckeachie has just engineered the triathlon specific saddle. John Cobb will go on to produce it when Karen visits him for wind tunnel testing. The original concept will spin off into both ISM Adamo saddles and Cobb Cycling saddles. Today nearly all of the top fifteen men and top fifteen women at the Ironman World Championship ride some version of the saddle Mckeachie innovated in her basement with a power saw and duct tape.
Karen Mckeachie is an engineer by degree and trade. She knows tools and equipment. She is analytical and has a mindset for questioning things. She is also a pragmatist. But the early 1980’s are still a time when men work on bikes and- in some sports still- women compete at shorter distances wearing lighter colors with ribbons in their hair, or stand on the sidelines in short skirts waving pom-poms. Because they’re girls. A woman named Julie Moss has already started to shift that reality at Ironman.
Karen Mckeachie is continuing that shift.
Mckeachie shows me how she engineered her saddle, changes the freewheels on a couple bike wheels, shows me how to pack a flight case to fly a bike, then looks me in the eye, tilts her head slightly to one side- and farts. Loud. It is, as if to say, “I can design, engineer, race, wrench, and do anything I want alongside you, better in fact, because I am an engineer, an athlete, and a strong person before I am anything else.”
Years pass. I’m in the military, first full time, then part time. I start a business.
I continued to work with Lew and Karen on a number of projects. About 1996 or ‘97 they sent a girl from Livonia, Michigan into my bike shop who told me she wanted to start doing triathlons. She told me she already knew how to swim.
I noticed she wore a ring with five circles on it. “Were you in the Olympics?” I asked.
Sheila Taormina won an Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta as a member of the 1996 U.S. women’s team in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. She didn’t know anything about bikes and wasn’t a runner, but she figured she’d try a triathlon, you know, since she was already a pretty good swimmer.
Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder worked extensively with Sheila from the time she started doing triathlons and for a number of years after.
Taormina went on to become an Olympic triathlete, taking sixth at the first ever Olympic triathlon in Sydney, Australia in 2000. Taormina also raced in the Olympic Triathlon in Greece in 2004, finishing 23rd after she won the ITU World Championships that same year.
Because of Karen and Lew, I got to set up Sheila’s bike for the Olympic Trials in Honolulu and traveled to Hawaii with her for the race, acting as her personal race mechanic. I did the same for her at the Olympic Trials in Dallas, Texas.
More years went by. Airliners hijacked by terrorists hit buildings in New York and Washington. A massive recession hit. A global war started. Karen and Lew continued to promote the sport by putting on events, many of them women’s only races, by hosting training sessions, by coaching and mentoring. Even by propping the triathlon federation up financially.
In 2011 I was a photographer at the U.S. National Duathlon Championships in Tucson, Arizona. I rode on the back of a camera motorcycle and shot photos in the transition area of the race.
On the first run of the duathlon I recognized Karen Mckeachie and knew she was a top contender. I found her bike in the transition area and set up to photograph her coming out of T1 to mount her bike. Then I would jump on the back of the camera motorcycle and speed out on the course to photograph her on the bike.
Mckeachie entered T1 after the run. She was breathing fire. She transitioned in an instant, passed multiple athletes in transition, grabbed her bike and ran toward the mount line where I was standing.
She did not smile, wave, or acknowledge anything other than the urgent need to shave every second, gain an advantage, get out on the bike course and race.
In that instant my concept of women’s athletics changed forever. I was in awe. Mckeachie was a badass, charging out of the transition area with a look on her face like an 18-year old Marine running a bayonet-fighting course. Nothing would slow her; nothing would get in her way. She was a fire breathing, take-no-shit, I am serious as hell elite athlete. Reserved, diminutive, soft spoken and analytical off the bike, a driven and practiced elite competitor on the racecourse.
My image of athletics and gender shifted structurally in that instant. When I saw this photo I shot of Karen on my computer back in the office I saw a photo of one of the greatest endurance athletes in all of history. 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.
I don’t know if Gwen Jorgensen knows Karen and Lew. I’m not sure Jorgensen understands the foundational role Karen along with Lew played in, first, women’s triathlon and then the Olympic triathlon.
I do know this; Karen Mckeachie has achieved immortality because of her contributions to triathlon and women’s athletics. This horrible tragedy took her life, but they did not take her legacy. Nothing ever will.