Inspiration doesn’t always come from the places that you would expect, sometimes it comes from people who you have never met and barely know. It can begin with subtle things, then words, then actions but when you find someone who inspires you, I think you should learn from them as much as you can.
Months ago I read a message on Instagram that I thought was really meaningful. It spoke to me and I sent a request to follow this person. Again and again I found myself struck by her posts and I started commenting on them. She uplifted me and inspired me. Then I learned about some personal struggles she was going through from her inspiring posts. I continued to follow her and look forward to her photos and messages. She is interesting, inspiring, beautiful, brave and someone I’d like to get to know more and I think you will find also brings meaning in your life. Her name is Mika McKinney and she is a student Mt. Holyoke College.
My name is Ella Doerr, I’m one of your many followers.
Mika, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I love your unique name. Will you please tell me about it?
My name is pronounced Mee-ka. My parents chose Mika because my mother was friends with the folk music family, the Seegers. Mika Seeger encouraged my parents to adopt a child from China so they named me after her.
This is great, I love your name and where it came from.
How old are you and where are you from?
I am 22 years old and live in a small town called Belfast which is located on the coast of Maine.
I’ve never been to Maine but I really want to go. Especially during the summer.
What drew you to Mt. Holyoke College in MA? I’ve started looking at schools with riding teams. What do you like about their riding team?
Maine, especially in the summer is great!
I was looking for a relatively small Liberal Arts school somewhat close to home. I wanted to attend a school that had a strong science program because going into school my dream job was becoming a pediatrician. Throughout my time at Mount Holyoke I changed my major twice I think, I am now graduating with a major in Psychology and a minor in Biology. The other huge draw for me, to MHC (Mount Holyoke College) was the equestrian teams and riding availability.
Since being at Mount Holyoke I have been fortunate to ride on both the Varsity IHSA Hunt Seat team as well as ride and be the Captain of the IDA Dressage team. The Equestrian Facility is located on campus which is convenient and allows you to be involved/ at the barn way more frequently! I love everything about being on a collegiate riding team, it combines my passion for horses and riding with a social aspect that riding usually does not come with. Joining the IHSA team gave me the space, coaching and horses to try out jumping! Before I came to school I had hardly jumped, so it was a learning process but it was one of the best decision I ever made was to join that team. There is a huge sense of community and support on the teams- between peers as well as between riders and coaches. Collegiate teams allow some riders, me included, to compete at an affordable cost, attend National shows that one might not otherwise get the chance to ride at and it creates friends for life. I would highly recommend checking out Mount Holyoke and their riding program, it is top notch and a place I call home.
Those points about the relationships between teammates, the barn on campus and the affordability of riding make a lot of sense. I will check out MHC.
I’ve only ridden hunters but I want to take some dressage lessons soon.
When did you start riding and what lit your fire for the sport?
I started riding when I was seven. I began more dressage focused riding lessons when I was nine and competed in my first show when I was eleven. I have always been horse -obsessed. I was the kid that would run around on the playground like a horse, sleep on horse sheets, make my dad be a stand in horse so that I could groom and lounge him...
I caught the competition bug at my first schooling dressage show, I won both of my classes and I thought I was unstoppable. Of course my next show I placed third and fifth maybe, but ever since my first show I have loved to compete!
There are so many beautiful pictures of you with horses on Instagram. Who takes all of these great pictures and do you do professional modeling?
Thank you so much! I have a variety of people that have photographed me, some professional some not. Recently I have been working with my friend Ashley Littlefield who is experimenting with photography! Some of the other photographers on my page are: family members, Emily Tarantini, Meg McGuire, myself as well as some horse show photographers!
I do not currently do professional modeling. I would love to incorporate my new body image with modeling opportunities as well as working with clothing companies to alter and promote their products!
I think you certainly should pursue modeling and working with a clothing company.
You said "I would love to incorporate my new body image with modeling". Will you tell me more about that? Why is that important to you and what impact do you think it might have for others?
I think that it is important to show especially young females that whatever your body confirmation, you’re beautiful. It sounds cliche because so many people preach that everyone is beautiful in their own way... but through this journey I have found peace with my new and changing body.
Of course loosing hair and loosing my leg to cancer has been hard, some days more than others. I look in the mirror and ask the question of why me, why was I the person to have to go through this challenge- but after reflection I find myself wanting to turn my misfortune into inspiration and awareness.
Before my diagnosis I sometimes felt obligated to dress and look a certain way. Society definitely plays a large role in what many people see as beautiful, so loosing components of that was hard! When you don’t fit the cookie cutter, desired model figure you find yourself upset in many cases, but what I have found is that your physical appearance means so little. It doesn’t define you nor should it be a construct.
I hope to inspire and encourage other women and men as well, to find beauty in themselves despite the possible differences they might have!
I love that about you and that you live it and show it on social media for other young girls! Your really awesome.
I’ve been reading about osteosarcoma. When and how did you discover it?
I was officially diagnosed with osteosarcoma last year in March (2017). I was having pain and trouble working out as well as riding for about 12 months prior. I never fully recovered after falling off of a horse last holiday season while I was home, I worked with my athletic trainer to try and treat my symptoms but nothing ever improved. I then was sent to get scans and shortly after I had a biopsy that revealed that I had bone cancer. Of course it was a huge shock and scary news but it was good that we found it then rather than later. I had actually been misdiagnosed with something called compartment syndrome for 14 or so months before any of this occurred. I had pain, swelling and some tingling in my toes after I ran and worked out.
Wow, so in a long way it was the fall that led to the discovery? It sounds like you didn’t have symptoms that were noticeable before that. I guess the lesson you can teach us, is to get yourself checked out if something doesn’t feel right. Especially after a fall. I can’t imagine what it felt like to get the diagnosis of bone cancer. You are such a fit athlete. Aches and pains from hard workouts seem normal. Especially with riding horses, we riders take falls and try to get right back on. I think it’s especially important to get checked out because equestrians get used to those aches in a way.
Your diagnosis must have been very scary. Your posts on Instagram show a brave fighter. Have you felt that way from the beginning? What has given you that inner strength? What did you find helpful as you started treatment?
The fall kind finalized that I needed more imaging. I had pain before that while running and working out but after the fall I was not able to walk without pain or a limp. Yes, I would highly encourage people to get checked out, if something isn't feeling right make sure you check in with your body as well as healthcare.
Thank you so, so much! I of course have some days of feeling scared and alone, but those are all mental blocks that I make up in my head. I am blessed to have a huge and amazing support system, and have been throughout my entire diagnosis. I was actually siting right next to one of my very best friends, Camille when I was told the news. It is so important in my mind to have true friends that are built on bonds that can withstand news and a lifestyle change.
I think my support group as well as the power of horses has given me inner strength. Having a constant goal to get back into the saddle and continue to keep striving to be the best and most competitive self I can be has helped a ton. I dream of horses night and day, I search for them on ad pages, sketch them, look at dressage tests and reminisce on old photos- anything horse related rejuvenates and excites me.
I found it so helpful to lean on my friends, both close and far. When people say they care, they truly do. They want to help and even if they are not around sending cards or flowers is a gesture of love and support. Learning to accept what is and not think of reasons why, was another important factor as well. I was and still am... The Mount Holyoke Equestrian community went above and beyond to help me!! My coach from home, Barton has also been a great support allowing me to ride when I can.
Good friends and the bond with horses are definitely my go to places for support. Are you in pain?
I was in a lot of pain before my surgeries. I was unable to get comfortable in the evening so sleeping was challenging because of the calcification my knee had gone through, it was not possible to straighten it. My nerves were also quite possibly pinched and I had neuropathy in my left foot so the pain was sometimes unbearable.
What is most difficult right now?
Honestly, what is most difficult right now is wanting to do a lot more than my body will allow. I see these beautiful large moving horses and want to hop on them, but at this stage in my recovery and learning I am not able to. Accepting the fact that I have to relearn a lot of how to ride as well as walk is the challenge.
What is your treatment like?
Right now I am working with a physical therapist and my prosthetist to strengthen my body and begin walking more "normally". I am also possibly going to rehab, and I am riding at Carlisle Academy which works with adaptive riding, and therapy!
You mentioned the Parsolympics in a post. Tell me about the Paraolympics?
Paralympics offer riders in both driving and dressage a chance to compete against others that have physical and or visual impairments.
It must be really hard doing physical therapy which looks so hard and feeling that you can’t be doing what you love as much as you heart desires. You are so strong and incredibly motivated, I believe that you will be back up there more than ever and in record time.
I know you’re in school and you do a lot of physical therapy right now. What do you do for fun? What did you do to pass the time at the hospital and between treatments?
Aw, thank you so much!
I enjoy spending time with friends, day dreaming about horses and future plans as well as focusing a lot of time and energy into my academics. I am a foodie so eating is high on my list as well as visiting the horses.
While I was in the hospital I facetimed my friends and watch a lot of horse videos including FEI TV!
I’m a foodie too! I saw your new video of you riding. Actually, cantering and you two looked amazing. Your balance and your seat looked incredible. How did it feel and how is it going?
I had the amazing opportunity to come to Wellington for a bit so that I could escape the cold and be able to ride. It was amazing cantering for the first time since surgery- I was on my old horse and it was great, almost as if nothing had changed.
Horses and riding are really special in that way. No matter your differences, you’re accepted and supported in the riding community.
Riding in Wellington this season has definitely been a highlight. I was able to lesson with my trainer and Kathy Connelly which is super special, I got to ride an FEI horse, hack, and spend quality time with the horses and people that I love.
Mika, thank you so much for talking with me. I am excited to keep following you and see what the future holds. You are an awesome athlete and an inspiring woman!