Paralympic Gold Medal Swimmer McKenzie Coan Inspires Students to Defy Odds

Oak Knoll students heard a story of inspiration with an extra dose of motivation on Monday, May 16, 2022, as they listened to the life story of McKenzie Coan, a Paralympic gold medalist swimmer, writer, and motivational speaker. Coan spoke to students, parents, and faculty and staff about her life’s journey with the sport of swimming and how she defied the odds in and outside of the pool.

Coan’s talk was sponsored by Oak Knoll School Parents’ Association.

At just 19 days old, doctors told Coan’s parents she would never walk, crawl, sit up, or stand. Born with a broken femur, Coan was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfects, or brittle bone disease.

“Doctors told my parents of every worst-case scenario,” said Coan. “I’m so lucky because my mother and father decided that wasn’t going to be my reality. From the very start of my life, people tried to dictate what I was capable of. I really hope that you never allow someone else to dictate what you’re capable of.” 

Coan’s parents found new doctors and enrolled her in aqua therapy along with physical therapy outside of the pool. When she was 4 years old, doctors recommended additional aqua therapy and it was during this time Coan says, that she found her passion.

“I fell in love with the water,” she said. “I found my freedom in the water even though I was so young and couldn’t articulate that feeling. I felt as though I belonged in the water more so than I belonged on land. I could move around in the water without worrying about breaking a bone. I could play in the water without concern about getting hurt. It was my favorite place in the world.” 

Then one day, Coan saw her brothers doing relay laps on the swim team and decide she too, wanted to participate.

Coan joined the swim team, later racing in the district championships, where she eventually became the first swimmer with disabilities in the history of Georgia to make the state championships. 

“I loved being underestimated, breaking down barriers, and showing others what is possible,” said Coan. “I became faster and even started swimming against able-bodied swimmers. My swim team became my family. I rolled up to the pool deck in my hot pink wheelchair and I was always ready to race,” she said. 

Coan began to compete nationally and internationally where she loved being on a pool deck with people who looked like her. 

“For the first time, I could feel myself coming out of my shell. I wasn’t afraid to be all of who I was. I was finally at my place, and I could be 100 percent myself and truly felt a freedom that I had never felt before,” said Coan.

At 16 years old, Coan qualified to compete in the summer Paralympic London Games of 2012 where she swam the 400 freestyle and finished in 6th place.

“I remembered thinking to myself in 4 years I’ll have a different result as I wanted to be on the podium,” said Coan.

While in college at Loyola University, Coan was part of the school’s division I swim program. 

“I never worked harder in my entire life,” she said. “I had big dreams in and outside of the water.” 

With the Rio 2016 Paralympic games three months away, Coan fell going down the stairs during a fire alarm evacuation from her dorm room and broke her shoulder. However, she persevered, recovered, and earned her first gold medal in the 50 freestyle. She later earned two other gold and a silver medal in Rio.

“I learned to adapt through adversity and kept going,” said Coan, who later defended her gold medal while competing in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games after their postponement due to COVID. 

Today, Coan is still swimming six days a week on the national paralympic team and in August plans to enter law school at Rutgers University. Her sights are also set on competing in the 2024 Paralympic games in Paris, France.

“You have to learn how to deal with adversity and have to keep going in life with determination and a will to fight,” she said. 

To read more about Coan’s experiences of defying the odds through swimming, check out her memoir, “Breaking Free – Shattering Expectation and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold.”