Anyone who has ever felt the afterglow of a sprint or the exhilaration of beating a personal best knows the time and dedication that goes along with competitive sports. For Scottsdale resident Todd Key, taking to the road as the sun comes up and keeping rhythm with the whirring of his bike chain is the kind of freedom that fills him with joy. The beautiful marriage of carbon, rubber, metal and sweat is cultivated and nurtured with every stroke of the pedal, every shift of the gears and every mile of pavement that passes beneath narrow tires.
And for Key, cycling is the great equalizer. It gives him a sense of abandon that he doesn’t always feel off the bike.
It starts with the click of his shoe in the pedal and the gradual increase in speed as he and the bike begin their synchronous dance. Pushing his way up climbs, faster, faster, creating his own wind as he cuts through the air, he leans a calculated left then right as the road winds through mountain passes. His eyes are focused ahead, but his mind is aware of every sound and shape around him. His speedometer ticks up and up and up; a rush of endorphins soars through his body as he flies.
It is in these moments that he becomes only a soul on a bike. His arms, his legs don’t matter, just his wingless spirit on wheels as the white line leads the way.
There is more to the challenge than passing other riders and racking up miles on his Fuji. For Key, riding is a way to prove to himself and to the world that there is something more powerful than physical strength; that his will to live and be fully alive is stronger than what he has lost along the way. He’s proven that time and again, and continues to inspire others to go beyond limits of their bodies and of their minds. He’s done it with fortitude and a plucky sense of humor to boot.
Key has always been adventurous, but the rest has come with a price. At the age of seven, he fell from a tree at his Chicago-area home and struck his wrist on a metal rail. A compound fracture which may have otherwise been fixed with a cast became a life-threatening ordeal when infection ravaged his tendons. Nine months in the hospital and 12 surgeries later, including skin grafts and tendon transplants, his hand was saved, but not its function.
“I really can’t remember the bad stuff. Selective memory, I’m sure,” he says. “I suppose it was very traumatic, spending all of that time in a hospital without my family.” He became a lefty nearly overnight, and the resilient second grader went on to hit the game-winning homerun in Little League the following year. He later took up tennis, which kept him strong and fed his competitive spirit. Still, he struggled with self-esteem, and his peers were not always kind.
At the age of 17, he faced an even bigger battle. A malignant tumor in his knee put him once again on the sidelines. Three decades ago, cancer treatment options were limited and often overly aggressive. His leg was amputated mid-thigh. He was devastated and it would be many years before he recognized the gift in his survival.
“I decided that my life would probably be over soon,” he says. “I was not at all interested in school or anything else. Of course I had support from my family, but they weren’t sure what to do or what I needed. There was never any talk about college or expectations that I’d have a good career or anything like that.”
Clumsy prosthetics didn’t help. Painful and impractical, they made his disability stand out even more. It would be many years before the mighty group of dedicated advocates and technicians developed technology for the sleek sensor-loaded prosthetic Key uses today.
But he did get back up. Slowly and with a lot of painful missteps, Key began the long journey of standing alone. There were times when he hated the world, and times when he hated himself. No one’s journey is simple. It took a while for him to build up the courage to care.
How he found himself has less to do with his stumbles than it does with his determination to get back up. Eventually he landed a job in car sales, and the same strong will that got him out of bed on the hardest of days and walked him out the door when he wanted to close it shut began to shine. For the first time, he was not only making a living, but making a life also.
And then there was the bike.
Wheels and gears beckoned throughout the years. He’d ridden as a child when accommodating for his hand injury wasn’t so hard, then again for a short time in college. The more he rode, the more uncomfortable the handlebars and seat became.
With a few crafty tweaks, he figured out a way to rig his prosthetic leg to the back so he could ride one-legged to work and to the movies and still be able to walk once he arrived. He also figured out how to enhance the handlebars so that he could rest his right forearm on top, taking pressure off of his hand and wrist. But it was the seat dynamics that continued to plague him, both physically and emotionally. It wasn’t just that no one had an answer for how to relieve the pressure for a one-legged rider; it was the way he was treated when he reached out for help.
“I went to a bunch of different bike shops, and one of two things would happen. Either they would not even make eye contact and pretend I was invisible, or they’d listen and shrug and I’d never hear back from them,” he says. The sting in his voice is unmistakable.
Still, he kept trying. When he wandered into Airpark Bikes in Scottsdale, he half expected the disappointment he’d felt before. Instead, Anthem resident Jason Suarez smiled and took on the challenge.
Suarez has a special place in his heart for those with personal struggles. He and his wife, Tisha, started Team Winded, a junior cycling team focused on asthma advocacy and research after their own children suffered setbacks due to the chronic condition. Together, Suarez, Key and Airpark Bikes owner Steve Driscoll came up with an innovative solution to Key’s seat problem. Using a modified handlebar stem, they molded a special pad for Key’s right side so that he could rest comfortably without pain as he pedals.
Having Suarez, Driscoll and the rest of the shop staff support and believe in him gave Key the boost he needed to soar. His ride mileage went from five to 50 miles each day in no time at all, and the mountain grades of Fountain Hills and beyond, which were once insurmountable, became welcome friends.
Today, Key continues to ride, and he is coming into his own power of inspiring others. Recently featured on CNN and in the Huffington Post, he is realizing his own strength. He’s witty and frank, and finally at ease with what has been taken away and what has been given. The stuffed monkey strapped to the top of his helmet gives motorists something other than his missing limb to look at when they do double-takes through their rearview mirrors.
He rides for cancer research, he rides to prevent bullying, but most of all, he rides because he can. Because no matter what pain or disappointment has happened in the past, each one of us has an opportunity to be courageous. For some, that courage rolls in on wheels and is pushed by the strength of what is left to give.