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Story and Photos by Tom Demerly.

Karen Mckeachie Du

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.

karen duathlon full size

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.

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By Tom Demerly.

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Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan was killed in a collision with a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.

Michigan State Police are conducting an investigation of the accident.

Karen Mckeachie was an internationally-known elite triathlete and an iconic figure in the sport.

Mckeachie was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. In her career as a top age group triathlete across all distances and many age categories, Karen Mckeachie won six world age-group championships and 15 age-group national championships. She was a multi-time Ironman World Championship finisher.

On Friday night a relative of Karen Mckeachie memorialized her remarkable life with these highlights:

  • Inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014
  • Seven-time triathlon world champion
  • Seventeen-time triathlon national champion
  • USA Triathlon’s Overall Triathlete of the Year, 1999 (the only 40+ female to receive that honor)
  • USA Triathlon Masters Triathlete of the Year, 2000
  • Is believed to be the oldest athlete (58 years) to outright win a major triathlon, beating out all the younger athletes in the race
  • Created the first-ever women’s bike saddle
  • Former coach of Olympic triathlete Sheila Taormina
  • Won two triathlons in one weekend in 2013
  • Has run a 2:48 marathon
  • Raced in 9 Hawaii (Kona) “Ironmans”, finishing as high as 8th female overall, and four times in the Top 25
  • When she was in college, and before Title IX began to level the playing field, University of Michigan wouldn’t give her an “M” shirt to wear when she qualified for the NCAA championships. So she sewed an “M” onto her own shirt, went to the championships, and won outright. Her hand-sewn “M” shirt is now in UM’s sports hall of fame. (She had to transfer to a lower-quality agricultural college in East Lansing because, even after her victories, UM still did not support women’s athletics).

Karen spent the past 35 years hosting and managing races, building the sport well before it became mainstream. Mckeachie’s influence has directly touched nearly every triathlon in Michigan that is older than 5 years.

Karen Mckeachie was an engineer with an analytical background she employed in her approach to triathlon training and equipment. She is credited with developing the first ever female-specific triathlon bike saddle when she used a hand saw to modify an existing bike seat to be more comfortable riding in the aerodynamic position. She was also co-founder of what may have been the first ever website to sell triathlon gear online.

Mckeachie, along with her husband Lew Kidder who survives her, was a tireless supporter of the sport of triathlon, contributing to the careers of many elite triathletes, managing triathlon events and contributing at every level of the sport.

Known as a quiet, reserved person outside of the racecourse, she was a fierce competitor while racing, having endured numerous physical injuries to prevail across all race distances and age categories. Mckeachie never recognized her age as a limitation and always raced for overall success.

Along with her husband, Lew Kidder, she helped found Triathlon Today! magazine that went on to become Inside Triathlon magazine under (then) VeloNews publication.

Prior to her death Mckeachie was racing and training actively, continuing to participate in national and world championship events.

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

everyoneisnotawinner

The Olympics celebrate unity and cooperation, sport and humanity.

They also support a greatly maligned human aspiration: Winning.

Contrary to modern myth everyone is not a winner. And that is just fine. Some people are better than others at specific things. They are winners at that task. No one is a winner at everything. And therein lies one of many reasons we need unity and cooperation, but not false equity.

We’ve moved toward a society that enforces a synthetic equity for fear of offending, fear of excluding, fear of discriminating, fear of discouraging.

That’s wrong.

Offense, fear, discrimination and discouragement are all bad things, but they are all part of life. Sport is a microcosm of life- an entire life played out in the time it takes a person to swim a length, run a lap, fall off a bike. It is life, concentrated. And that is part of what makes the entire spectacle so beautiful, so powerful, so tragic and so magical. It’s life in a one-minute swim heat.

Lilly-King-775x465

Eyebrows went up when U.S. swimmer Lilly King made derogatory and accusing statements about Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova. Efimova has been banned two times for testing positive for performance enhancing substances. King called bullshit on Efimova, mocked her gestures, then went out and kicked her lycra-covered well-trained Russian ass in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Talk the talk. Walk the walk. King delivered. Good story. End of story.

Michael Phelps raised eyebrows by giving the stink-eye to South African swimmer Chad le Clos who beat him in the 200-meter butterfly in 2012 by only 0.05 seconds for the Gold Medal. That is only five-one hundredths of a second. No human activity takes that little time, except losing your ass, and Phelps has built a career of kicking ass. So that loss to Le Clos in 2012 was a bad day at the office for Michael Phelps. He wanted payback. Phelps settled his account with Le Clos last night by swimming 1:54:12 to Clos’ 1:55:19 in the 220-butterfly. In Olympic swimming that is a rout.

And Michael Phelps isn’t sulking anymore.

thecrash

In the Women’s road race Dutch rider Annemiek van Vleuten crashed heavily on a dangerous descent of the closing lap only a couple minutes from a potential Gold Medal ride. Annemiek was out-descending American breakaway companion Mara Abbott of the United States, at least for the moment. But Van Vleuten gambled, and the reason they call it gambling is because sometimes you lose. She lost. Broken vertebrae, concussion, dashed medal hopes. Tragedy. But she is recovering, and she will race again. The U.S. rider chasing her, she lost too, only meters from the line. Ironically, Mara Abbott lost to one of Anniemiek van Vleuten’s teammates.

So one thing we’ve learned so far in this Olympics is there are very definitely winners, and losers. Not everyone is a winner. There has to be losers to perform in valiant, tragic contrast to winners. And there is nothing wrong with that.