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Robert Simpson: Iron woman

Karen McKeachie has been described in the press, here and abroad, as “legendary.” Excellent choice of words. If you are fired up by persons who defy the odds and accomplish exceptional goals by determination and extreme perseverance, her life will definitely move you. Her parents are members of the Ann Arbor, Michigan, church where my daughter and her husband share pastor duties. So it was natural that the two preachers would participate in the memorial service for Karen. From their experience I learned about this very special woman.

McKeachie, an engineer with degrees from Michigan State and the University of Michigan, had to fight to compete in track at a time when women were largely excluded. In high school, the track coach said she could compete only if the men voted her in. In a practice race, she beat all but two of the men. They voted her out. At the University of Michigan, the coach refused to let her participate in a cross-country nationals event. She had her mother sew a blue “M” on a yellow jersey and ran anyway. She came in eighth, and the jersey hangs in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.

She discovered the thrill of triathlon when her husband, Lew Kidder, bowed out of an event because he didn’t choose to jump into a cold lake. She took his place and finished third among the women. Triathlon became her activity of choice. She and her husband started one of the first magazines devoted to the sport. She helped other athletes, training a number of Olympic participants. She also turned her engineer’s eye on a problem and corrected it when the standard seat on bicycles seemed uncomfortable and inadequate to her. She went into her workshop and with power saw and duct tape redesigned the seat. It worked. Versions of it became the standard used in competitive biking.

Somewhat reserved and quiet in social settings, painfully shy when required to make a public address, Karen McKeachie became a single-minded demon in competition. She might not win an event, but she would finish, regardless. She would never quit.

Space limitations prevent describing all of this amazing woman’s accomplishments, but here are some I selected from those listed by a friend in the program for her memorial service:

Pioneering in women’s athletics before Title IX, she became the first All-American woman runner in University of Michigan history. Raced in 9 Hawaii (Kona) Ironmans, finishing 8th female overall in the 1984 World Championship and twice in the Top 25. Seven gold medals, 13 podiums ITU Triathlon and Duathlon World Championships, 1985-2015. Age group winner in seventeen USA Triathlon National Championships, 1985-2015. First overall woman at first international triathlon in China, 1988. USA Triathlon’s Triathlete of the Year in 1999. USA Triathlon’s Masters Triathlete of the Year in 2000. At 58, oldest women’s open winner of national triathlon series event in 2011. Won two national championships in one weekend in 2013 and again in 2015. Inducted in USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. Founder and race director of more than forty triathlons, road runs, adventure races and open water swims.

I’ve only hit the high spots, but I don’t want to leave out her professional work as an engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation and for the vehicle testing lab at Chrysler Motors Proving Ground, as well as engineer for Highway Safety Research. And lest you think there was no room in this exceptionally busy life for an artistic side, she played French horn in two different community bands for the last 33 years.

Nine days ago, Karen McKeachie and two friends were riding bikes along a road not far from Ann Arbor when a driver passed another vehicle and struck her head-on. Age 63, she died at the scene of the accident. She left behind a devoted and now devastated husband, her parents and a sister and brother-in-law, two cats, and a multitude of those who mourn her untimely death but are inspired beyond measure by her life.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”

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