At 2 years old, Vancouver native McKenna McKee would fall asleep with her legs still pedaling in the child stoker strapped to her parents’ tandem bike.
At 6, McKee was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She refused to let it deter her from athletic pursuits. She found cycling and diabetes worked well together.
At 13, McKee met 18-time U.S. sprint track cycling national champion Mandy Marquardt. An inspired teenager, McKee soon took on the fear-inducing slopes of a velodrome.
Now 17, McKee is one of three females on Team Novo Nordisk, an international cycling team composed entirely of athletes with diabetes. Marquardt is a teammate.
By age 21, McKee hopes to be a United States Olympian.
“It’s like riding a wall,” McKee said of sprint track cycling. “I just love the adrenaline rush you get from it.”
When McKee first took on the velodrome, after competing in the obstacle-ridden courses of cyclocross, she admits it was “terrifying.”
Now she says that fear is what keeps her going.
Track cycling is a physically grueling sport where riders compete in a banked circle, called a velodrome. Races are anywhere from 250 to 1,000 meters and are often measured in pace as competitors jockey for position until the final bell sounds when cyclists push as hard as they can.
McKee has made quite the name for herself in the sport. She finished second at junior nationals last year, behind only the U.S. record holder. Afterward, she received an invite to a talent ID camp in Georgia, where she became Team Novo Nordisk’s youngest rider.
“That really made me focus in and have the confidence to know I can really do this,” McKee said. “I know I can do incredible things if I put my mind to it.”
Since, McKee has enrolled at Washington Connections Academy, an online school based out of Goldendale. She formerly was a Mountain View High School student. The switch to online classes helped McKee lead a more independently structured life, where she could schedule classwork around cycling events and training.
“I can take my schoolwork anywhere in the world,” said McKee, a high school junior. “It’s really helped me become independent.”
McKee trains six days a week, twice a day. She’ll watch online recorded lessons in the morning, then get a lunchtime workout — a good mental reset button, she says — before returning to classwork the rest of the afternoon. In the evenings, she joins an online training session with her personal coach, Kirk Whiteman, who runs a Portland-based studio.
McKee traveled to Australia to compete in December. But due to the coronavirus, she hasn’t competed since February. Still, McKee knows she continues to take steps toward her Olympic dreams.
“This has been a growing period for me mentally and physically,” McKee said.
McKee has overcome hurdles before. Doctors told her she might have to avoid strenuous activity due to her diabetes. She loved to swim, but the chill of the water would cause her blood sugar to drop. When she rode a bike, she could monitor things more carefully.
“It’s forced me to become a stronger person,” McKee said of her diabetes. “If I don’t take care of myself, I could be in the hospital. Or worse, dead.”
McKee has to monitor her blood sugar levels up until race time. Adrenaline can spike her blood sugar. If her levels are too low, she takes a sports energy drink to balance it.
Like Marquardt was for her, McKee hopes to be an inspiration to other young athletes with diabetes.
“Our goal is to show people that diabetes doesn’t mean you have to stop pursuing your dreams,” McKee said. “There are hard times and it can be frustrating, like ‘Why is this happening to me?’ You have to get through that and fight it. Never give up.”