BY ALLYSON HUNTOON ’19
“She believed she could, so she did!” This was the quote painted in gold letters on Mika McKinney ’18’s graduation cap last spring. Despite the many challenges she faced, this phrase became representative of the way Mika lived her life as her resilience and strength inspired those around her.
“Mika’s confidence and presence were unlike anyone I have ever met,” said Emy McLaughlin ’20, a friend and teammate of Mika’s. “She was beautiful and strong and really did love her life.”
Mika was a beloved member of the Mount Holyoke community and a decorated athlete on both the varsity hunt seat and club dressage equestrian teams. She also acted as an equestrian fellow for the Office of Admission, and she was a leader in various other aspects of her life at Mount Holyoke. She graduated in 2018 with a degree in psychology.
Mika recently passed away after battling osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. For many community members, she was a model of resilience and strength. C.J. Law, director of intercollegiate coaching and varsity equestrian team coach, said, “[Mika] was a smiling young woman who aspired to do whatever she could to the top level that she could. She just made us all want to be a better person because of her.”
When Mika found out that she had been diagnosed with cancer, she was in the second semester of her junior year. At the time, she was captain of the dressage team and helped lead them to the national championship, where they were reserve national champions. Despite the challenges she would face during treatment, she remained determined to graduate and stay involved with the sport she loved.
“She told me that she knew she was sick but was going to live her life as if she was not, and I believe she did,” said Morgan Lynch, assistant equestrian team coach. “She never let anything step in her way, she made goals, and reached many of them.”
Mika finished her junior year on campus with the help of her professors and she was adamant on graduating alongside her classmates.
She did what was necessary to fulfill her graduation requirements while undergoing treatment and supporting her teammates from afar. Amy Grillo, former visiting assistant professor of psychology and education, was Mika’s academic advisor. “She kept herself focused on what she could do, and that included enjoying the time with her beloved father, Paul, as well as maintaining a full academic course load throughout her treatment,” Grillo said. “She finished her on-campus courses from the hospital and from home during her remaining semesters. I was fortunate to be able to guide Mika in an independent study to meet her last requirement for the Psychology & Education major, in which she conducted a qualitative research project exploring how elite equestrian athletes understand and make use of precompetition ‘performance anxiety.’”
By May 2018, Mika was posing for pictures beneath the campus’s main gates in her white Laurel Parade outfit alongside her friends. On the day of commencement, she smiled and held her hard-earned diploma in her hands. The journey to that day was one filled with both challenges and triumphs.
After undergoing intense chemotherapy treatment, Mika made the decision to have major surgery. In December 2017, she underwent thoracic surgery and an above-knee amputation of her left leg in order to reduce the amount of cancer within her body. Regardless of these major changes to her life, she intended to keep doing what she loved and ride horses again as soon as she could.
Not long after her leg was amputated, Mika was featured in Terisé Cole’s article in Equine Journal titled, “Unrelenting — A Dressage Rider’s Story of Success, Strength, and Sheer Determination.” In the article, Mika said that she was focused on rehabilitation and said, “With time and practice, I am confident I will relearn how to ride with my new body configuration.”
In the article, Mika also talked about some of the lessons she learned throughout her journey. “Despite even the biggest adversities you might face, you have to continue to try to see the silver lining, not letting the hardships diminish our goals and dreams. You might have to slightly alter them along the way, but never give up on things you want to achieve and who you want to become,” she said.
Mika always found that silver lining in her own life, McLaughlin said. “She could find the silver lining and humor in virtually any situation,” she added. “Mika taught me and the whole [equestrian] team to put the people who matter the most above all else, and to try to find positivity in any situation, no matter how impossible it seems.”
Forty-one days after Mika’s life-changing surgery, she posted a photo of herself smiling in the saddle atop a horse once again. She had long-term goals to compete in the Paralympic Games in dressage, and she continued to ride horses whenever her health and schedule allowed. Law said, “The day after she was told about the amputation of her leg, she was already making a plan for being in the Paralympics.”
Mika’s optimism and ambition inspired those around her. Emily Allyn, associate dean of admission, was Mika’s supervisor in the Office of Admission. She said, “When I think of Mika I think of her smile first. That beautiful, beautiful smile. I also think of her sense of fun and her goofy side — her ability to laugh at herself.” She added, “[Mika] inspired everyone in her orbit with her optimism and open heart, and she reminded us all of the true meaning of team spirit.”
Mika’s outstanding achievements in her equestrian career inspired other athletes, and so did her attitude. Lori Hendricks, director of athletics, said, “Mika had always been an inspiration to those around her. Whether it was her work ethic, sense of humor, compassion or humility, she raised the bar of expectation and engagement for her teammates and classmates.” Hendricks added, “Over the past year, I was especially impressed with Mika’s extraordinary courage, passion and commitment. I saw her as an example to a far larger community beyond her team.”
Throughout her journey with cancer treatment, Mika spoke publicly about the strong love and appreciation she had for her family, friends and community. Her family will host a memorial service in her honor on Oct. 7 at 2:00 p.m. at Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center in Northport, Maine. Members of the Mount Holyoke community are also discussing a potential on-campus celebration of Mika’s life, to be scheduled later in the semester.
“It is almost impossible to comprehend that Mika is not still with us,” Grillo said, “because she was the most vibrantly alive person I have ever known.”