McKenzie Coan heads to her third Paralympic Games as three-time gold medalist and one of the most engaging members of the U.S. team. When she was just 19 days old, Coan was diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bone disease) which has caused her to break nearly 100 bones despite being just 25 years old. She competes as a swimmer in the S7, SB6 and SM7 classifications, which includes amputees, as well as athletes with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and other impairments. Coan is from Clarkesville, Georgia, but lives and trains in Baltimore, having graduated from Loyola Maryland University in 2018.
Get to know McKenzie Coan ahead of the Tokyo Paralympics.
Start in swimming
“I was born with a disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta which means I have fragile bones that break for no reason sometimes. With that diagnosis, my parents were delivered a death sentence. They were told I would never walk, talk, stand, speak, crawl or even hold my head up. Any movement could break a bone. But instead of putting me in a bubble, my parents were determined I would live life head-on, no matter the challenges and obstacles standing in my way. They truly taught me that the only limits are those you allow to be there. They got me into aqua therapy which turned into swim team and we’ve never looked back.”
“I was five years old and it was my very first day of swim team right after my Mom threw my life jacket in the trash and let me try to swim on my own for the first time. I loved it. The water was my freedom and I looked around and realized that in the pool, I was just like everybody else. I think the best part and the big reason why I’ve given my life to it is because it’s the place where I find my confidence and drive in that I realized limits didn’t exist.”
Becoming a Paralympian
“I was eight years old and had been discovered and recruited for a Paralympic sport program, Blaze sports of Georgia and I remember hearing about the Paralympics for the first time and googling it with my Mom and seeing differently abled athletes like myself winning gold medals for their country. I then went to my first Paralympic meet a few months later and absolutely felt so motivated to go out and be one of the athletes who could go to the Games and win someday.”
Coan debuted at the London 2012 Paralympics as a 16-year-old, finishing sixth in the 400m freestyle. Four years later, she would leave the Rio 2016 Games with four medals including three gold.
Swimming while injured
“Due to the nature of my disability and condition, I’m most often swimming with broken bones. Having broken nearly 100 bones throughout my life, it’s a big part of it so I’ve learned to adapt! If I break an arm or shoulder, I kick. If I break a leg, I only pull with my arms. There is always a way to keep going!”
"I have quite a few but my first favorite is 'Big Mac' which was given to me by one of my first swim coaches because I’m so tiny but fierce and I have a big personality… And my second is 'Golden Mermaid' which was given to me by a documentary film crew that shot a one-hour series about me last year! And my closest family and friends call me Kenzie.”
I actually am pretty good at shooting baskets on the b-ball court. I can’t run or anything but even though I’m tiny, I can shoot goal after goal on the court which is very satisfying.