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Para Swimming McKenzie Coan Making Waves With Book And Pandemic Training

By Karen Rosen | June 10, 2021, 8 a.m. (ET)

McKenzie Coan poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

You’d never guess that inside the Coan garage in Clarkesville, Georgia, there’s a Ford Model A on one side and an 8-foot tethered swimming pool on the other.

While the car sits quietly, awaiting restoration, the pool churned with activity for five months last year as Para swimmer McKenzie Coan worked out during the pandemic.

After all, Coan has places to go, particularly the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“Let me tell you that was some of the hardest training I’ve ever done,” said Coan, who won three gold medals and a silver five years ago in Rio. “I make a lot of waves, especially when I’m sprinting, and there’s nowhere for that water to go. It was insane.

“It was almost like you’re swimming in the ocean.”

Coan, who turns 25 on June 14, believes the strength she developed swimming over those waves has made her even better. She hopes to defend her Paralympic titles in the 100 and 400 freestyle as well as swim the 100 backstroke and the 50 butterfly in Tokyo.

In mid-April, at her first international meet since the pandemic began, Coan posted world-leading times in the 100-meter freestyle of 1 minute, 9.11 seconds and 400-meter free of 5:05.66 at a World Series event in Lewisville, Texas. Her 400 time was an improvement of about a second over her Rio performance and Coan notched a personal best in the 100 backstroke.

“I’ve been chasing those times for a long time,” she said.

Coan’s performances will count toward qualification for Tokyo, and she will also compete in the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials to be held June 17-20 in Minneapolis. 

Coan was born in 1996 – coincidentally the year the Paralympic Games were held in her home state – with a connective tissue disorder called Osteogenesis imperfecta, which is also known as brittle bone disease.

She has a book coming out on Aug. 13, just before the Paralympic Games begin, called
“Breaking Free Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold.”

Coan, who wrote the book with Holly Neuman, said she describes how at 19 days old, “Doctors told my parents I would never do anything even if I lived past infancy. 

“I would say read this book if you’ve ever been told that you can’t do something, if you’ve ever been told that you have been limited in life. I’ve been told the craziest things - that I’m too fragile. My parents have been told they’re crazy for letting me swim.

“I think if people had it their way, they would have put me in a black box on a shelf, shut the door and walked away. But that’s not what I was going to let happen.” 

 

From Aqua Therapy to Pool Shark

Nor would her parents. Coan’s mother Teresa wasn’t allowed to learn how to swim until she was 16, so she was determined her children would be comfortable in the water at a young age. Coan joined an aqua therapy class while her brothers, one older and one younger, joined the swim team on the other side of the pool.

“I loved the feeling of being free in the water,” said Coan. “And when I joined the swim team, I loved beating the other kids.”

When she was on the pool deck, Coan said, “all the other kids would kind of size me up, and I got the feeling, ‘Aw she’s in a wheelchair. She’s not going to come out here and do anything.’ And there was a point where I was actually winning meets and doing extremely well. I liked being underestimated. It fuels me more.”

Coan, who has the rather contradictory nicknames “BigMac” and “Small Fry,” then entered the Paralympic world, and competed in her first Games in 2012 in London. She swam only the 400 free and was sixth. 

Four years later, Coan set a Paralympic record in winning the 50-meter freestyle final while also capturing gold in the 100 free and 400 free and silver on the 4 x 100 freestyle relay. Unfortunately, the 50 free was dropped in her category of S7 due to a reconfiguration of events and her favorite event, the 1,500 free, is not on the Games program.

Last March, when Coan woke up to a text message from her coach telling her the 2020 Games were being postponed, she remembers thinking, “This is absolutely the right decision. The world is really hurting right now, people are really sick and we need to get better. We need to get through this.’ And my next thought was, ‘How am I going to do this for a year?’”

Which brings us to the pool in the garage in tiny Clarkesville, which has an estimated population of fewer than 2,000 people. Frustrated after a couple of months trying to mimic her strokes on dry land, Coan went online and found the perfect tethered pool. There was one left.

When the world and American record holder asked her parents if she could get it and put it in their garage, “There was a moment of just dead silence,” Coan said.

But they agreed and her father, Marc, even made the ultimate sacrifice – giving up his parking space. His keeps his car outside under a tarp.

“I think he was a little bit sad at first, but he goes, ‘Anything to help you train, let’s do it,’” Coan said. “That meant a lot to me.”

Despite the pool package arriving with some missing parts, Coan and her mom were confident they could put it together themselves. They wound up having to dismantle it and start over, with the whole process taking four days.

 

Worth the Effort

When Coan finally got back in the pool, she felt truly at home. “Just being able to be in the water during that time,” Coan said, “not only was it good for training and to keep going, but mentally it made me feel better. Those were really hard times and having something that felt familiar was everything to me.”

With music blasting, she trained up to two hours at a time, with her mom, now a swim coach, helping her.

Butterfly caused the most commotion in the pool, so Coan had to sweep the water out of the garage every day so it didn't ruin the floor. 

However, a mishap while changing the filter did lead to an accidental flood. While frantic at the time, the situation became one of Coan’s “favorite swimming stories with my mom of all time.”

But eventually Coan she realized she needed to get back in a real pool and a real gym so she could resume weightlifting. 

In September, she became a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where one of her training partners is 13-time gold medalist Jessica Long.

Coan is considering staying in Colorado Springs through the 2022 world championships. She’ll then head to law school at Rutgers University. Coan, who graduated from Loyola University Maryland with a degree in political science, applied to 18 law schools and got into all 18. She chose Rutgers for its proximity to New York City, its excellence regarding civil rights, advocacy and public interest law and for its access to an aquatic center and nearby teams so she can continuing her swimming career through Los Angeles 2028. Coan also was awarded a scholarship.

She was introduced to the law via the movie “Legally Blonde,” which she discovered during one of her regular hospital stays. For her first 12 years, Coan had to go to the hospital every three months to receive infusions of a drug intended to strengthen her bones. 

She got hooked on a different movie every time, until “Legally Blonde” won her over for good.

“I felt like I could be Elle Woods,” Coan said. “I was absolutely obsessed.”

She did an online search and learned lawyers could make a difference in the world. “I told my mom right then and there that I could help make things better for people in wheelchairs or people with disabilities,” Coan said. 

From that point, she watched the film on every hospital trip and even perfected her “bend and snap.”

Yet Coan lives every moment knowing that the slightest move could lead to a broken bone, a circumstance that she says is more disturbing for everyone else than it is for her.

“I feel like people are almost afraid of everything that I do,” Coan said. “I understand it; I know I break bones easily, I know I have to be careful, but I want them to know that this is something that I’ve dealt with my entire life.

“When I walk, I look down at the ground. I’m scanning for cracks. I’m scanning for slick surfaces. I’m doing everything I possibly can to be safe. I tell people, ‘I’ve dealt with it my entire life, and I’m not going to sit on the sidelines out of fear.’ I’m going to live my life with it.”

 

Too Many to Count

But Coan would change her approach in one way. “One of my life’s greatest regrets,” she said, is that she hasn’t kept track of how many bones she has broken. “The most annoying thing is I should have kept count along the way. But it would have been impossible anyway. I know it’s somewhere up near 100.”

That’s because Coan can break a finger or two, or even a hand, if she comes into the wall too fast at the finish of a race. She also has broken toes and her feet on flip turns. One time she jumped into a pool without noticing the depth, landed on her right foot and broke it in multiple places. 

Did she still compete in the meet? “Definitely,” she said, although now she said “you will see me literally look at the depth written on the side of the pool 10 times before I jump in.”

Coan carries an emergency break kit with her, with tape that allows her to stabilize a broken bone. The kit also includes ibuprofen. 

She said the breaks usually heal on their own, although fractured femurs have forced Coan to seek more extensive treatment. Still, she was back in the water after a few days.

“Living with OI is difficult because you never know when the next fracture is going to happen,” Coan said. 

She’s grateful for every day she is fracture free, but doesn’t take it for granted. “That’s why every time I get in the water I’m going to give it my all, because I don’t know if the next day, if I’m injured, I might not have that opportunity.”

Coan is naturally disappointed that her family will not be in Tokyo because of the ban on foreign spectators. 

She’ll have to bring her own Cheerios and peanut butter, which are her pre-race ritual in the ready room. 

But Coan said it gives her comfort knowing that she can call and text her family and that the Paralympics will be televised so they can still watch her perform. 

“I never look up in the stands before I swim,” Coan said. “It’s almost a superstition thing, but the very first thing I do when I hit the wall - and I did this in Rio - is I look for my family because it’s just such a cool moment to share with them. It will be different.

“But my mom told me, ‘Look into the camera. We’re right there.’”

 

Karen Rosen

Karen Rosen has covered every Summer and Winter Olympic Games since 1992 for newspapers, magazines and websites. Based in Atlanta, she has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.

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McKenzie Coan