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Medal tested: Paralympian returns to Cumming after winning big in Rio

POSTED: October 18, 2016 3:03 p.m.
Micah Green/

McKenzie Coan, who used to swim for the Cumming Waves at the Cumming Aquatic Center, has overcome painful adversity her whole life, and it so far has brought her four medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio this summer.

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It’s 12:47 p.m., we’re at a Wal-Mart in Oakwood, and we’re running late. McKenzie Coan is scheduled to appear at a park in Toccoa at 1 p.m., and we’re trying to make it up there before she has another appearance scheduled at 3 p.m.

Please be there still. Please be there still.

The Wal-Mart stop was to buy an American flag for the photo shoot. Three-by-five? Four-by-six? She’s only 4-foot-3. The bigger one will look good flanking her and her four medals.

The 20-year-old Loyola University Maryland swimmer, who used to swim on the Cumming Waves at the Cumming Aquatic Center (and whose
mom still coaches them), brought home three gold and one silver from Rio this year.

It’s 1:45 p.m. – roughly – we’re a block from Paul Anderson Memorial Park, and we drive past a group of kids, 50 or so of them, kindergarteners or thereabouts, walking away from our destination. Waving kindergarten-sized American flags.

“I bet they were just with her,” I point out, unnecessarily, unhelpfully.

Please still be there.

We walk up, and I can’t see her. But I do see her mom. Teresa Coan is standing by a fountain, talking with a small group of adults. Everyone is dressed in red, white and/or blue. Exhale.

Then, I hear her laugh from a shaded, covered area. I’d only met her once before – about 21 hours earlier – but her laugh, more like a giggle, stuck with me.

Joyful. Excited. Thankful, if a laugh can be that.

Today she’s surrounded by another group of adults and her 6-foot-something almost-18-year-old brother.

McKenzie Coan is used to looking up at others. Short stature, after all, is a common effect of osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease.

But now that she is a four-time decorated Team USA swimming Paralympian, she has a generation looking up to her.


“I’m gonna make that team.”


Coan began to hit her stride at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She didn’t medal in London in 2012, but that wasn’t
near the beginning of her journey in the water.

“The water was always the one place that I knew I was safe, because like on land and stuff I was at risk for a lot of fractures and breaking my bones and everything. Not fun stuff to go through as a kid,” she said. She spent five days a week in the water for aquatic therapy as a kid. “My brothers got bored of sitting at the pool, so they decided to join the swim team, and when I saw them I was like, ‘Yah, I know I can do that. And I know I can do it just as well.’ So I started doing that.”

At one of her first Paralympic events she met an athlete. Curtis Lovejoy.

“He’s been to, like, five Paralympic games. He’s got a lot of medals, and he’s just a great guy all around, and I remember he said he trains six days a week. And I remember turning to my mom and looking at her after that, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna train seven days a week, and I’m gonna make that next team.”

And she did.

“Thinking back four years ago in London, my first thought when we got on the plane to go home was, ‘Wow I hope I get to do that again.’ So when I got there and we were doing it again, it was just a huge honor to even be there. It was really, really cool. It’s still pretty indescribable.”


A welcome homecoming


A running joke with the Paralympic Team USA swimmers is that their medals – a hefty number – are worth just a little bit more than the Olympic medals. The Braille on the back adds just a little bit more gold or silver or bronze.

The beads inside each – 28 in each gold, 20 in each silver, 16 in each bronze – that make each level sound different so the visually impaired athletes can tell which kind they’re holding adds just a little more weight.

A day before the Toccoa trip, Coan explained the difference in each medal to a press conference audience of kids at the Cumming Aquatic Center.

She was not shy in letting the kids hold them or shake them or wear them. She’s seen most of them grow up in her time with the Cumming Waves.

“You want to wear it?” she asked, smile wide as her face. “It’s heavy. There ya go, man.”

Some who gathered to welcome her home have grown taller than her since she last saw them. She didn’t mind sizing up to them, as if she were reuniting with a cousin or high school friend.

They asked her questions like how did she win, and how much does she practice, and what does she eat to prepare for a race.

“She takes teeny tiny Cheerios and dips them in peanut butter, with potato chips,” her mom told the crowd, her team.


“Just wait and see.”


Being born with osteogenesis imperfecta has made her life different, sometimes hard, many times painful, but it has not stopped her from
achieving what most can only dream of, marveling at them from behind their TV screen every four years – becoming an Olympian.

“We did not know that [she was born with the disease] until she was 19 days old and her leg broke when I went to burp her. And from that
point on it started going,” Teresa Coan said. “It was really hard when she was first diagnosed because I had everybody telling me everything she wouldn’t do. She wouldn’t have her head up, she wouldn’t laugh, she wouldn’t crawl. Had somebody tell me that she could pass away when she was an infant. That was really difficult to hear. But I told them they didn’t know what they were talking about and just wait and see.”

It’s 2:15 p.m. – roughly – and Teresa Coan’s baby who wasn’t supposed to do anything is standing, holding an American flag, draped in a 100m freestyle gold, a 400m freestyle gold, a 50m freestyle gold and a 4x100m freestyle silver.

If Teresa Coan had listened to them, her daughter wouldn’t also hold the American Paralympic record for 1500m freestyle.

“She has the will to succeed. And something I told her when she first went on the swim team, she had not swam without a floating device. So she wanted to do it, and I said the only way you can do this, I unzipped down the thing and just dropped her in the water. And she swam. And she made more than one lap by herself. She had never done it before.”

Her work ethic, maybe it came from her parents, maybe from swimming, maybe from a lifetime of fighting through pain, is something she wants to instill in young kids.

“I hope that people can take something from this and realize that if you work hard enough and if you put enough of your mind to something, there’s nothing you can’t achieve,” she said. “And I think that if you have a good work ethic and you keep focused that you can go out there and pursue anything you want to in life. And to never let yourself be limited by circumstance. Because you can overcome anything.”


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