McKenzie Coan reacts after winning the gold medal in the women's 400-meter freestyle S7 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 29, 2021 in Tokyo.
Growing up in Clarkesville, Georgia, McKenzie Coan has vivid memories of attending sporting events at Clemson University with her father, an alum of the school. There were many football and men’s basketball games, but she said she wasn’t really exposed to a lot of women’s NCAA sports as a kid. In fact, she didn’t even really know they existed, or that playing sports in college was an option for women.
“I didn’t know what kind of opportunities existed for females who wanted to compete in college. I didn’t know what that looked like,” she said.
It wasn’t until Coan got involved with the U.S. Para swimming team as a teenager that she began to understand the importance of women’s college sports. Now 25, Coan is a three-time Paralympian and has six medals — four of them gold — to her name. Yet her college experience remains foundational to her, both in and out of the pool.
A 2018 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, Coan swam four years at the Division I university under coach Brian Loeffler.
“I didn’t know what opportunities were available for athletes with a disability,” said Coan, who was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) as a child. “I also didn’t know what kind of opportunities existed for females who wanted to compete in college. I found this whole other world of competitive energy and drive, and you could do it at large institutions where not only you are getting an excellent education but you also have the chance to shine as a female athlete on the collegiate stage.”
While at Loyola, Coan came to identify with the idea of “Cura Personalis,” a Jesuit tenet that means “care for the entire person.” She wasn’t familiar with what it meant to get a Jesuit education before choosing Loyola, but in retrospect she says spending time at the university has had a big influence in shaping the person she is today.
“When I got there, I finally had the chance to embrace all of who I was, not only as McKenzie the athlete,” she said. “That was so rewarding to me. It’s a huge reflection on what I had done at Loyola not only as an athlete, but academically, who I had become as a person and realizing that I just grew so much. (Loyola) definitely helped me grow in a way that I didn’t even think was possible.”
While at Loyola, Coan interned in the Office of Student Development and then took a job there after graduation while she trained for Tokyo. She had always planned to attend law school, and with her training schedule, had planned to defer her enrollment until after the Paralympics.
In her role, Coan worked on a number of concerns around Title IX, which helped solidify that advocacy was where her passion lay.