We had the chance to catch up with McKenzie Coan, an American para swimmer who has won 6 Para medals and set 2 world records. She shares behind the scenes stories from Tokyo, how she trained during the pandemic, and a sneak peek of her new book, “Breaking Free: Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold.”
McKenzie was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, meaning that she has extremely fragile bones that break very easily — sometimes for no reason. To help her build strength, her doctors recommended that she start aqua therapy when she was 4 years old.
The water gave McKenzie a new sense of freedom. She could get her energy out and build muscle to help manage her condition.
When her brothers joined the local swim team, McKenzie felt the urge to take her swimming to the next level. Eventually she convinced her mom to let her give the swim team a try, and after swimming 6 laps straight for the coaches, McKenzie had proven that she could hold her own. And the rest is history!
Water as an Equalizer
As McKenzie started to compete more frequently, she discovered that she loved proving people wrong. She would roll up to the blocks in her wheelchair, drawing stares from the other competitors.
But when the gun went off and she dove in, it didn’t matter that she had shown up in a wheelchair. In the water, McKenzie was just like everyone else.
Swimming has helped McKenzie look at limitations in a completely different way. The only limitations are the ones you put on yourself, she says. Swimming gave her the confidence to be proud of who she is and go after what she wants.
Finding the Right Classification
According to McKenzie, finding the right para classification is a major challenge. From age 8 to 16, she was competing in a classification that wasn’t the best fit for her. Looking back, swimming during those years helped hone McKenzie’s competitive nature, and forced her to toughen up. She says she’s grateful for those experiences.
Since the 2012 Games she has swum in the S7 category. When she made the transition to this new category, she felt a sense of belonging and began competing against athletes with similar abilities to her, which made competition a lot more fun!
Reflecting on Tokyo 2020
And Tokyo was no exception. From the moment she stepped foot in the Village for this year’s Games, McKenzie knew the competition was going to be something special. And she was right! She came home with 2 medals: A gold in the S7 400-meter freestyle and a silver medal in the S7 100-meter freestyle.
She also noted that para athletes got a lot more screen time during the Games than usual — about 1200 hours of broadcast time on American TV, which was a huge deal and helped increase visibility of para competition.
Tokyo was McKenzie’s third Games. She competed for the United States at the 2012 and 2016 Games as well! 2020 was special, though: She got to serve as a team captain for the United States!
Adapting in Uncertain Times
Similar to many athletes, the news that the 2020 Games were postponed hit McKenzie hard. In a year that was full of uncertainty, McKenzie says that the 2020 Games didn’t feel real until she got on the plane to fly to Tokyo.
When the postponement was confirmed, McKenzie was baffled. She knew postponing the games was the right decision for the health and safety of everyone involved, but there was another thought in the back of her mind. What if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak at the Olympics, and the Para games are completely canceled?
She immediately reframed her mindset. How could she maximize the extra year to get even faster?
Before lockdown began, McKenzie was training at Loyola University in Baltimore, Maryland. When pools closed she made her way home to Georgia and started researching backyard swimming pool options.
Staying in the pool wasn’t just important to McKenzie for training. She relies on swimming to keep her body healthy and maintain muscle mass to protect her bones.
She eventually built a tethered swimming setup in her garage, and says her family turned the space into their own mini aquatic center.
Before the pandemic, McKenzie trained in the pool 10 times per week, and often incorporated USRPT-style training. One of her favorite sets is 10×500 freestyle, the last rep all-out from the blocks. She also hits the gym for dryland training a few times a week. Over the years she has perfected her pull-up!
Sharing Her Story
In August 2021, McKenzie published her first book: “Breaking Free: Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold.”
Writing a book had been on her bucket list since she was a child, and in recent years McKenzie was finally able to get her story down on paper! In the book, McKenzie reflects on her life and everything she has been through as a para athlete. She shared some of the surprising things she has endured due to her condition — she often competed with broken bones!
She hopes the book inspires readers to go after their dreams and never let others tell them what they are — or aren’t — capable of.
Looking ahead, McKenzie is training for World Championships in June 2022, and has Paris 2024 in her sights as well.
In the fall of 2022 she will start law school at Rutgers University, where she plans to study civil rights and disability advocacy.
It has been almost 10 years since McKenzie’s first Games. Looking back, she feels she has come a long way, both as an athlete and as a person. We can’t wait to see where her career takes her next! Follow McKenzie’s swimming journey on Instagram at @mckenzie_coan. Check out her new book here >