Mika McKinney ’18, 1995 – 2018

Mika McKinney ’18, 1995 – 2018, with Marty, at the Mount Holyoke equestrian center

By Mitchelle Stephenson

Mika McKinney ’18, a recent Mount Holyoke College graduate and equestrian champion, died in early September, just before her 23rd birthday, after an 18-month illness. She was a fighter to the end.

A native of Belfast, Maine, McKinney joined the dressage and hunt seat teams as a first-year student. Elected dressage team captain by her teammates in spring 2016, at the end of her sophomore year, she served during the following school year.

Her outstanding riding in April 2017 at the Intercollegiate Dressage Association’s national championship in Hackettstown, New Jersey, earned McKinney the title of First Level Team National Champion. Her success was a significant contribution to the Mount Holyoke team becoming Reserve National Champions. In an interview after the event, McKinney described the accomplishment as a “dream come true.”

McKinney had been diagnosed with bone cancer only a month earlier, and she had immediately started an aggressive course of treatment. She never gave up, said her coach, C.J. Law.

“Mika never let life get her down, no matter what the news was,” said Law, Mount Holyoke’s equestrian coaching director. “She inspired us all with her incredible courage, her spirit, her positive attitude and her love of life. She touched all of our lives in so many ways. Mika’s mental ability to stay so positive will be an everlasting treasure she left with all of us.”

McKinney always loved horses. She first rode at age seven. At nine, she found dressage with trainer Barton Patrick at the Belfast (Maine) Polo Club. She rode under Patrick’s tutelage until her death.

Horses were one of the reasons she chose to attend Mount Holyoke. The College’s strength in the sciences was another. The small New England college so close to home “exceeded all of my requirements,” she told Equine Journal in March 2018. “I was blown away with the academic offerings, small class sizes, low teacher to student ratio, and Hogwarts-like campus.” 

And even better, she continued, “to seal the deal, MHC’s equestrian program was nationally ranked; the riding facility was on campus with three teams to choose from!”

Mount Holyoke loved her back, and she rode and studied — she was a psychology major and biology minor — collecting accolades and abiding friendships along the way.

Mollie Kowalchik ’18 met McKinney on move-in day their first year. They bonded over a shared love of horses, a friendship that deepened when they both become members of the hunt seat equestrian team. By sophomore year they were roommates.

“One of the most amazing things about Mika was her ability to have such a close connection with so many people,” Kowalchik said. “She took the time to truly invest interest in what was going on in my life and whatever problems I had, even if they were insignificant compared to her own. She had an incredible ability to make each and every person feel important and special.”

Emy McLaughlin ’20 was a first-year student when she met McKinney, then a junior, through the hunt seat equestrian team. They had been assigned “big/little” roles on the team.

“She was the one of the most beautiful riders I’d ever seen,” McLaughlin said. “I was honestly slightly terrified and intimidated. She had an unwavering confidence unlike anyone I’d ever met. She taught me more about love, life and putting the people you care about above anything else.”

McKinney shone in the classroom as well, said Amy Grillo, a former visiting assistant professor at the College, who met McKinney as a high school senior, touring campus. She sat in on one of Grillo’s classes that day. 

“She stood out from the beginning,” said Grillo, who went on to become McKinney’s academic advisor. “When Mika was in a class, everyone engaged more. She was a ball of fire — this happy, curious person. Everyone couldn’t help but rise to that. I saw that in big classes and small seminars.”

The close Mount Holyoke community was essential after McKinney received her diagnosis and began the difficult treatment regimen, including the amputation of her leg.

When she couldn’t be at competitions, her teammates kept her there in spirit with “Ride for Mika” hats and yellow ribbons on their show attire. She loved seeing the horses with their manes braided in yellow and blue in her honor on the livestream of events she couldn’t attend.

“Mika was incredible because she never truly let on how sick she was,” Kowalchick said. “She set lofty goals for her future and there was never any doubt that she would achieve them.”

True to form, McKinney quickly turned her attention from the Olympics to the Paralympics, reaching out to other Paralympic riders for motivation. 

An inspiration throughout her equestrian career, McKinney received the Director of Athletics’ Inspiration Award in May 2018. During the presentation, Lori Hendricks ’92, director of athletics and chair of physical education, cited her courage, passion and commitment to the team and community. 

McKinney graduated alongside her classmates in May. She is survived by her father, Paul, and her brothers, Seamus and Eammon. She is predeceased by her mother, who died when McKinney was five years old.

A family service is planned for Sunday, October 7, at 2 p.m. at Point Lookout Resort and Conference Center in Northport, Maine. All are welcome. The Mount Holyoke athletics department will host a celebration of her life later this year.

She will be greatly missed.