McKenna McKee, 17, has maintained her athletic training even after being diagnosed as a child
The daughter of an avid cyclist, McKenna McKee said she was pretty much born to ride.
Nothing was going to keep her off of a bike.
Even when life tried to slow her down as a 6-year-old diagnosed with diabetes, McKee just kept riding.
“Ever since I was little, I always felt free on a bicycle. Nothing else really matters,” said McKee, now a 17-year-old from Vancouver. “I could just forget about all the problems in the world and just ride a bike. Even with diabetes, when I was really upset, I could go on a bike and not worry about it.”
McKee was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It was frustrating to learn that her life was about to change, but she vowed to continue her life on two wheels.
“I never felt my diabetes would hold me back from doing anything,” she said. “Being on the bike has been inspiring. My goal is to make the Olympics. Why? I want to prove that diabetics can do whatever we put our minds to.”
Today, McKee rides for Team Novo Nordisk, the world’s first all diabetes professional cycling team. McKee races in the “Changing Diabetes” kit on the domestic junior criterium circuit.
McKee is sharing her story to help get the word out about national diabetes month. Saturday, in fact, marks World Diabetes Day, the birthday of Sir Frank Banting, a scientist who helped discover insulin. This is the 99th year that insulin has been used in the fight against diabetes.
“It’s pretty amazing. Everyone here loves to ride their bikes, and all are living with the same condition I have,” McKee said of her teammates. “It’s not only for ourselves. It’s for others living with diabetes.”
McKee has an insulin pump at all times, even in competition, dripping insulin into her bloodstream 24-7, she said.
Her mom, Jennifer McKee, is also a nurse.
“She keeps me in line.”
While McKenna spent a few days in the hospital during her initial diagnosis, she said she has not had any major medical emergencies associated with her condition, on or off the bike, since then.
She started competing in cycling when she was 7. She was into cyclocross, a combination of road and mountain biking, but she wanted something new. Criterium consists of several laps around a closed circuit and is generally shorter than a road event. McKee said competing in crit, as it is also called, makes it easier for her to control her diabetes.
Prior to COVID, she would often train at the velodrome at Portland’s Alpenrose Dairy. That facility is closed, leaving McKee to find new locations to work out in the region.
Sometimes, a track around a field at a school will do for her and her coach Kirk Whiteman. The two started working with each other when McKenna was 12.
“Watching her grow from little girl to young woman, and the maturity she has is second-to-none. She is so ahead of her years with everything she does,” Whiteman said. “She’s very methodical and very serious, but she knows how to have a good time while doing it.
“This journey that we’re on has just been amazing. I’ve learned a lot about diabetes, but also a lot about what makes her tick.”
That drive to improve led to a change in her schooling. A former student at Mountain View High School, McKee recently enrolled with Washington Connections Academy Goldendale, an online-only school that allows students to work at their own pace.
McKee trains six days a week, twice a day. And as her athletic career transitions from amateur to professional, she needed more flexibility.
“I just figured I want to be the best athlete I can be but I also want to get a good education,” McKee said. “It works well with my schedule. It taught me to be really independent.”
In fact, at a recent training session, she proudly claimed she had already done that day’s assignments earlier in the week.
There are several events associated with crit. Whiteman said McKee goes faster than 40 mph on her bike, and should get even faster real soon with her training as she prepares for 2021. A cyclist usually is in her 20s when she hits her prime, the coach said.
That long-term goal of Olympic glory is there, but McKee did not start out thinking about anything that big.
“It just came to be,” McKee said. “It’s always something I enjoyed, and I always wanted to ride my bike. I found out bike racing was a lot of fun. I’m slowly getting better every year. When I was 10, I was racing with girls who were 13, 14. I was able to keep up. ‘Wow. This is amazing.’ I just kind of kept at it each year.”
Nothing — certainly not diabetes — is slowing down McKenna McKee.