Sometimes Paralympic stardom comes with more than just medals. For McKenna Dahl, it came in the form of riding around as grand marshal of her high school’s homecoming parade.
Dahl’s dream of making it to the Paralympics came true in 2016 when she went to Rio de Janeiro in mixed 10-meter air rifle. Even more impressive, Dahl won bronze, marking the first Paralympic shooting medal by a U.S. woman.
“There was happiness and a pride of accomplishing what I set out to do,” Dahl said prior to the U.S. rifle/pistol championship that got underway Sunday in Ft. Benning, Georgia. “It’s an incredible feeling to see all the hard work come together.”
Her confidence has shot up meteorically after doing so well on the biggest international stage.
Now, Dahl takes aim at Tokyo in 2020, and she’s putting more mental aspects into her craft.
“We have a new coach [Armando Ayala] and he’s focused on mental training,” Dahl said. “We have a conference call every week to discuss what we did and what to focus on the next week. We work directly with them a lot more, which is cool.”
Dahl said going into Rio she hoped to learn from the standing position and transfer her newfound knowledge to the prone position, and it worked.
“After the standing match I learned what I needed to do to respond to distractions, and it’s amazing how calm I felt in prone match,” Dahl said. “Most of time in high-pressure matches I can get nervous, but this time I felt so relaxed. The standing match helped my confidence.”
Dahl was born with amyoplasia arthrogryposis in her left hand and both of her feet. This rare congenital disorder left her with underdeveloped muscles surrounded by other developed muscles.
She picked up shooting at age 12 when she went to Camp Access, a summer camp for kids with disabilities that allows them to comingle and play competitive sports. Dahl gravitated to the shooting range and fell in love with the sport.
Eight years later, the International Paralympic Committee named her one of the top 10 para-athletes to like before the Rio Games and the IPC expected her to “be huge come Rio 2016.”
Maybe that’s because she had three fifth-place finishes at IPC World Cup events (Al Ain, United Arab Emirates; Szczecin, Poland; Bangkok, Thailand) in 2016 leading up to Rio.
She was the first female to win a Paralympic quota for the United States and she was the only female to make it into the finals.
At the final round in Rio against seven male counterparts, she scored 189.5 to earn the bronze — the first medal in American Paralympic shooting since Dan Jordan won silver in men’s three-position rifle in 2004.
She went back home to Washington after the Paralympics and received rock-star treatment. She wore her Paralympic jacket and bronze medal as she paraded around the track at halftime of the school’s homecoming game.
Dahl took a little time off, but not much, before returning to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to resume her training.
“It definitely wasn’t a long break and I wanted to start training again,” Dahl said. “If you’re not training it can get a little monotonous there.”
Last week she received her certificate for completing a degree in business and technical management with specialization in criminal justice at DeVry University.
Dahl said she’s not sure yet if she’ll continue furthering her education or if she still wants to pursue a law degree. She just knows she wants to sharpen her skills and aim for gold in 2020.
Dahl also said she needs to block out the distractions and keep her focus, avoiding anything that can disrupt her rhythm.
“It’s all about getting to Tokyo and doing better than Rio,” Dahl said. “That’s our goal and that’s our focus.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.