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58-year-old Valley resident, ASU alum Todd Key wins pair of para-cycling national championships

Todd Key lost his right leg to cancer 41 years ago
Posted: 5:09 PM, Jul 09, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-09 21:07:58-04
KNXV Todd Key

He's approaching 60 years of age and has lost the use of multiple limbs. But that hasn't come close to stopping Todd Key from accomplishing things that those with full use of all their extremities couldn't dream of doing.

"Getting on a bike, you just discard the prosthetics, and it’s like this incredible freedom," said Key, a professional road and track para-cyclist who's fresh off winning the MC1 3K individual pursuit and successfully defending his national title in the MC1 kilo time trial in California.

"You immediately become the person who doesn’t have any disability. It’s just like this immediate, instantaneous change where you don’t have to deal with any of those funky electronics."

National championships are nothing new to the 58-year-old Key. He has 17 of them, as well as an international title.

"The thing about cycling is you’re a couple feet off the ground, and the faster you go, you kind of feel like flying. And once you have some ability to get around comfortably, that sense of flying and sense of speed and sense of no impediments, it’s a drastic change, and there’s no other way to get it," he said.

A Scottsdale resident, Key is from Chicago but moved to the Valley 30 years ago to pursue a teaching degree at ASU. He has always been an athlete, despite the absurd amount of adversity life has thrown his way.

When he was seven, he broke his right hand while climbing a tree, permanently costing him the use of that hand. In spite of that, he went on to become a nationally ranked tennis player -- but at age 17, he lost his right leg during a battle with cancer.

Still, Key was determined to remain active. He played golf every day for 10 years, and later turned to cycling when he "started to get a little round around the edges." He competed on the ASU cycling team for a brief time.

But Key's disability used to limit his enjoyment on the bike.

"I couldn’t ride the bike for more than an hour without it being uncomfortable, and riding with one leg with no special equipment and one hand is pretty intense," he said. "I was able to cobble together some parts 25 years ago to make the handlebar good, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the seat more comfortable."

So, Key gave up cycling for 20 years before an artificial limb specialist who manufactured his prosthetic leg stepped in with a solution.

"The socket I use for walking actually attached to the side of the bike to take the weight off the seat," he said. "Twenty years went by, so there were more bike solutions than there were (before)."

Today, an average day for Key includes an early-morning bike ride with two-legged cyclists. Those rides can last up to three hours and often become competitive.

Key never finishes last.

"Every day, I’m destroying the hopes and dreams of two-legged people," he said. "It’s great training for me because they all have two legs and they don’t care about torturing me. I end up having to work extra hard to kind of keep up. There are some really nice places in PV (Paradise Valley) where all the million-dollar homes are. This time of year there’s nobody on the roads because they're all out of town, so you get to do all the crazy training you want to do.

"Road (cycling) is much more my thing -- races are 30 minutes to two hours. Time trialing is something I’m really good at because, as you get older and learn how to suffer intensely over your life, suffering for 30 minutes is not a big deal. You push yourself to the limit without dying, and very few people are good at that."

Along with national competitions, Key has competed all over the world. Italy is his favorite international destination -- "the food there is just unbelievable," he said -- but he's also biked in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, South Africa and Canada.

Key's lone international title was a result of a mixed blessing. He tried out for the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio but narrowly missed the cut. That did, however, free him up to compete in, and win, a World Cup competition in Spain.

"It was nice because the Spanish world champion was there, and I beat him by eight seconds in the time trial," he said. "That was very upsetting to him, which made me even more happy.

"It’s nice to win by a big margin, but it’s nicer to just barely win because the other guy is really demoralized. And when you do it in his own country, it’s even sweeter."

It took Key a long time to accept his disabilities, which is why he spends significant time letting kids know that they don't have to be defined by theirs. Key visits about a dozen elementary schools per year in Phoenix, Tempe and Flagstaff to inspire children, including those with physical and mental limitations.

"I kind of show them a person who is extremely comfortable with themselves and extremely comfortable with the way I look, and what my limitations are and what I’ve been able to do with them," he said. "I’ve gotten past the point where I just don’t care what people think anymore, and that’s a very difficult barrier to cross over."

Key wants to expand his outreach to kids. His goal is to attend over 100 schools per year. "If I could grow my ability to go to schools that much, I think I would have accomplished what I wanted to," he said.

Key doesn't plan on slowing down anytime soon, and he now has his sights set on the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo. But even if he falls short of that goal, he won't give up cycling. In fact, if he has it his way, he never will -- even if that's limited to showing up two-legged competitors in the Valley.

"I think I’ve got a good chance at Tokyo, but even if I don't (make it), that won’t change anything," he said. "I get to race here locally every day I want to, and as long as I’m upright and I can pedal, I can’t imagine giving it up."