“I’ve had people telling me I’m incapable of things my entire life,” McKenzie Coan told the audience in Centennial Hall. ”I love proving people wrong….never let anyone else dictate what you are capable of.”
Coan, a Paralympic gold medalist and Paralympic record holder, visited Bryn Mawr to share her story, meet with the Bryn Mawr swim team, and talk to 5th-12th grade students. She even passed around her Paralympic medals.
At just 19 days old, Coan was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bones disease, and has spent her lifetime defying the odds and other peoples’ perceptions of her. Born with a broken femur, Coan would break her arm days after coming home from the hospital leading to testing, physical therapy and as Coan put it “growing up in a hospital.”
Eventually her physical therapy included aqua therapy, and soon after, Coan joined a local swim team and began serious competitive swimming, despite breaking bones frequently. “That’s a part of my life, she shared. “Everyone has something they have to get through.”
She trained on the national team and celebrated her 16th birthday at the swim trials for the London Olympics. Returning home, she began training seven days a week, and added a new title to Paralympian when she became a student athlete as a Division One swimmer at Loyola University in Baltimore. “I fell in love with college swimming and I fell in love with Baltimore,” she said.
With her eyes focused on training for the Rio Paralympic trials, Coan broke her shoulder while at Loyola, one of the more than 50 bones she has broken in her lifetime. She trained through it, recalling “I had the meet of my life at trials.” She would go on to bring home three gold medals from Rio for individual events, the 50m, 100m, and 400m freestyle.
Like everyone else, Coan was impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic, which forced her to move back to her parents’ home in Georgia, to train for the delayed Tokyo Paralympics in a makeshift aquatic center in her parents’ garage. She went on to defend her title winning a second gold medal in the 400m freestyle in Tokyo.
Notably, the most important thing for Coan is not the six Paralympic medals she has won. “Medals are great, but they are not the end all be all. What matters is the impact you have on other people.”