Livin' the Dream: Paralympic swimmer does not live by others' expectations (2024)

The truly exceptional McKenzie Coan, a Paralympic swimmer, is on her way to the Paralympic Games in Paris, France in August of 2024. This marks her fourth time competing in the Games. Her records of accomplishments are long and the number of gold and silver medals fill the biggest of trophy cases. Ranked number one in the world in her swim category in the 50m, 100m, 400m, and 1500m freestyle events, Coan is a World record holder and American record holder who continues to astound spectators and fans with her resilience and spirit.

Osteogenesis Imperfecta

The journey to where she is now has not been easy. Her incredible story testifies that anything is possible. Born with a broken femur, Marc and Teresa Coan were told the umbilical cord could have done it or it was a freak accident in birth. When the Coans took their new baby home, Teresa was burping her and heard something like a chicken bone snap. It was McKenzie’s arm. After a skin test, they were told McKenzie had Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), also known as brittle bone disease. It is a genetic disorder that causes bones to break easily. Yet, there was no history of OI in their family.

“I was what they called a spontaneous mutation,” McKenzie added. “I’ve always believed I am the way I am because it was just meant to be.”

In her lifetime, Coan has broken over 50 bones in her body due to the disease. Her parents were told early on that McKenzie would probably never walk, talk, or sit upright. The only other case of OI that the physicians had treated, passed away. Little did anyone know the heart of the champion that resided inside McKenzie.

Growing up

Growing up in Clarkesville, Georgia, McKenzie joined the swim team at age five because her brothers Grant and Eli were swimming on the team. “The water is a saving grace for me. I started Physical Therapy at the age of six months until about the age of four. Being in the water is still today the best place for a person with my condition.”

McKenzie said her parents helped her pursue anything she wanted to do. “My parents instilled in me the resolve that my life would not be dictated by other people’s expectations,” McKenzie said. “Swimming was just one of the avenues that helped me to do just that.”

As a child, McKenzie swam for the Habersham Rapids Swim Team. In high school, she participated in the Cumming Waves Team. She went on to swim in NCAA Division 1 at Loyola University in Maryland during which time she secured a spot in the 2012 Olympic Games in 3 events in London.

2012 Games

“Those events were a defining moment for me,” McKenzie expressed. “I had to withdraw from two of the events due to a technicality and the third one I came in sixth overall. I remember looking at the scoreboard and realizing I never wanted to feel this way again.”

2016 Games

In 2016 McKenzie returned to the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. “Rio changed a lot for me,” she said. “There was a little girl who came to watch me swim. She had the same diagnosis as me. I’ll never forget talking with her and the smile on her face when she realized she could do it too.”

McKenzie won three individual gold medals at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio and a silver medal as part of the 4 x 100 m freestyle relay. In Rio, she competed in six events and earned gold medals in all of the Freestyle events which put her in a very small group of individuals winning every event of one stroke. She set a record in the 50-meter freestyle in the finals.

“When I returned from Rio and was back at college, I struggled with my emotions. Going from this amazing experience and then sitting in class and trying to fit in with other students and day-to-day life was very hard for me,” McKenzie said. She encourages people to seek out mental health when life is overwhelming.

2020 Games

The 2020 Games in Tokyo were difficult because of COVID. “The games had been delayed. I was training at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs,” she remembered. “During the events, having no one in the stadium was hard and completely different.”

A few weeks before her competing in Tokyo, McKenzie’s book “Breaking Free: Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold” was released co-authored with Holly Neumann.

McKenzie brought home a gold and silver medal, having defended her 400 m Freestyle medal from Rio in 2016.

2024 Games

This past week, McKenzie earned her spot on the 2024 Paralympic Team at trials in Minnesota. “This past year has tested me mentally and physically in ways that I’ve never experienced before. I’m only here because of all the people in my corner cheering me on and getting me through the hardest days.”

She will be competing in the 50 Butterfly, 50 Freestyle, 100 Freestyle, and 400 Freestyle in Paris in August.

Much of McKenzie’s life is goal-oriented, goals she sets high and accomplishes. “I think it is really good to have your mind already set on what your next goal might be,” she explained. “Even more important is your mindset.”

After the 2024 Paralympic Games, she will be pursuing law school. An advocate for those with disabilities and challenges, McKenzie wants to be able to be a voice for others by using her own experiences in life and connections. She anticipates living in Boston, Massachusetts.

“The things that happen to us in life either become things that happen to us or things that happen for us. It is up to you to decide at the moment,” McKenzie said.

Livin' the Dream: Paralympic swimmer does not live by others' expectations (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Kerri Lueilwitz

Last Updated:

Views: 5584

Rating: 4.7 / 5 (67 voted)

Reviews: 90% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Kerri Lueilwitz

Birthday: 1992-10-31

Address: Suite 878 3699 Chantelle Roads, Colebury, NC 68599

Phone: +6111989609516

Job: Chief Farming Manager

Hobby: Mycology, Stone skipping, Dowsing, Whittling, Taxidermy, Sand art, Roller skating

Introduction: My name is Kerri Lueilwitz, I am a courageous, gentle, quaint, thankful, outstanding, brave, vast person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.