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.”
Both Nina and St. Michael-Albertville coach Dan Lefebvre agree that it’s a lot of pressure for a 16-year-old high school sophomore to shoulder. Yet they also agree that Mitchell is uniquely prepared to handle it.
“If anyone can, he can,” Lefebvre said. “Actions speak louder than words, and he’s really worked on his intensity and his technique. He’s a much better wrestler this year.”
Nina said Mitchell has always had the gift of being able to compartmentalize, of not allowing one aspect of his life to affect another.
“Mitchell is used to taking a lot of pressure,” she said. “He’s always had that ability.”
A challenging route
For Thursday’s team tournament, St. Michael-Albertville earned the No. 2 seed in the Class 3A bracket but isn’t expected to be able to get past top-seeded Apple Valley. The individual tournament starts Friday and runs through Saturday. The 120-pound bracket is loaded, so McKee will not have an easy path to a title.
Mitchell said he has done everything in his power to prepare and is confident he won’t have a repeat of last year, when he unexpectedly lost in the semifinals.
“My coach from Pinnacle Wrestling, Brandon Paulson, always says you have to go all-in and love the fight,” Mitchell said. “We’re a family of fighters. My dad is getting through all of this stuff and still coming to see me. It will be the best feeling in the world to see him there.”