Todd Key likes to race other cyclists at a punishing pace. But unlike all of his competitors and friends, he rides using one leg, not two.
Key has fought against the odds for most of his life. When he was just seven years old, he fell from a tree and lost the use of his right hand and most of his arm. But even that setback wasn’t nearly as difficult as the challenge that would come 10 years later. At age 17, Key developed a form of muscle cancer called sarcoma and was forced to have his right leg amputated.
“At the time, I was unprepared emotionally and I ended up missing most of my junior year and was not at all interested in school or anything,” says Key, 53. “There was very little talk about college or a career, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”
For several years, Key lost his way. He finally decided to get back to school at the age of 28, enrolling in engineering and design classes at Arizona State University, but it was a bicycle – not the classroom – that brought Key a new life and disposition. Because he lived off campus, Key used the bike as a means of quick transportation to classes, and eventually 30 to 40 miles to his job in Scottsdale, Ariz. To help tailor the bike to his physical needs and reduce pain while riding. Key made several adjustments, including a special seat and handlebars.
“I found a whole new incredible world, where I could be normal again,” says Key. “Cycling is a great equalizer. You really don't notice that you're missing anything.”
In 2010, Key completed the Pan-Mass Challenge in Massachusetts with his brother, Scott, and the 190-mile race inspired him to do more charity cycling events. That year he logged 30 more long-distance rides, and soon a recruiter from the U.S. Paralympic cycling team noticed Key's talent.
"When they first brought me into the training center, I was strong, but I developed muscles in all of the wrong places," says Key, who now competes in the time trials and road races for the U.S. Paralympic team. "I've spent the last six months doing rehab and getting back into shape."
Because his two events require both speed (30-minute time trial) and endurance (two-hour road race), Key switches up his training and focuses on recovery tools, like massages, dry needling and physical therapy, to maximize his efforts. Velodrome training -- cycling on a heavily baked racetrack that allows riders to keep their bikes relatively perpendicular to the surface while maintaining speed -- adds another level of conditioning as well. The special machines at the training center in Colorado allow Key to isolate different muscles, such as the quadriceps and hamstrings, to help him build strength; steam baths allow him to condition his body for hot, humid weather. He completed long, three- to four-hour morning rides, full-out sprints up hills and interval sessions, all in preparation for the 2014 UCI Para-cycling world championships in Greenville, S.C., last month, in which he finished seventh in the time trials and 13th in the road race.
Since January, Key has left his job selling cars and started cycling full time while training in Colorado, and his goal is to get a spot on the U.S. team for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
On top of training for those Games, Key is also raising funds and preparing for his fifth consecutive ride in the PMC alongside his brother, returning to the ride that he credits for refueling his passion and love of cycling.
"I'm a completely different person now," says Key. "I had no idea any of this was possible. It's hard to describe how incredible it has been."