Stories are plentiful at the wrestling state tournament, which begins Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. More than 800 wrestlers will compete, each with his own compelling yarn and a dream of glory.
But perhaps none can match that of Mitchell McKee.
Much of the St. Michael-Albertville sophomore’s story is common. He’s ranked No. 1 at 120 pounds in Class 3A, has gobs of experience at the regional and national levels and still feels the burn of losing unexpectedly in the 106-pound semifinals last year.
But there is a larger, more personal reason pushing McKee, and for this one, time is his biggest foe.
Mitchell’s father and biggest fan, Steve, has been battling cancer for nearly a year. In December, Steve was told the cancer, which began as a tumor in his chest, had metastasized. Doctors gave him two months to live.
Since then, he has been clinging to the goal of watching his son in the state tournament one more time, hoping to see him wrestle for a state championship.
“My parents have been with me in wrestling right from the get-go,” Mitchell said. “My dad has always been there, cheering me on, no matter how hard it is for him.”
On Saturday, Steve watched Mitchell win his weight at the Class 3A, Section 7 meet, then left immediately for Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. He spent Sunday through Wednesday getting a chemotherapy drip, all with the intent of being in the stands for three days of state tournament wrestling.
Things haven’t gone as well as hoped, said Nina McKee, Mitchell’s mother, but there is no doubt he’ll find his way to the arena in St. Paul.
“It’s been rough for him this week,” Nina said. “But he’ll be there. He wouldn’t miss it.”
The driving force
With her husband having to focus on his illness, Nina has become the main driving force behind the McKee family, which also includes Patrick, a budding eighth-grade wrestler. A committed wrestling mom, Nina keeps things from spiraling out of control.
“I’m probably the feistiest person you’ll ever meet,” Nina said. “I can’t be weak. It’s not in our nature.”
Despite spending most of her time with Steve, she is adamant about keeping a sense of normalcy at home, making sure to get housework done and that the boys are focused.
“I think it’s important to keep the house in shipshape,” she said. “If things are chaotic, it affects us more.”
She also developed a plan for Steve, setting small, reachable goals to help him live as normally as he can.
“We started setting events that he could look forward to,” she said. “The state tournament is a big one. After that, it’s Mitchell’s confirmation. And if things go well, we’d like to get him back to our cabin this summer to go out on the boat. But the wrestling meet is his real goal.”