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Swimming: 'Equal in the pool'
Swimmer overcomes disability for spot in Paralympics
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Paralympic swimmer McKenzie Coan prepares to get in the water on Tuesday at the Cumming Aquatic Center. - photo by Autumn Vetter

McKenzie Coan is like most 16-year-old girls.

She’s a self-proclaimed Facebook addict who enjoys shopping with friends or settling down with a Nancy Drew book, attempting to solve the mystery before the story reveals the culprit.

But there’s something different about her life.

Coan suffers from osteogenesis imperfect (OI), a condition estimated to occur in one out of 20,000 births. The disease makes her bones brittle, and she faces the possibility of losing her hearing by the age of 20.

Coan has broken more than 30 bones in her life and has endured three surgeries to insert metal rods into her legs.

She’s can’t even estimate how many times she’s been to see a doctor.

Under most circumstances, Coan’s condition restricts her to the places her wheelchair can take her.

But there’s one part of the world where she can leave her wheelchair and many of her physical limitations behind — the water.

"We’re all equal in the pool," said Coan, sporting a U.S. swim cap on Tuesday at the Cumming Aquatic Center.

Coan, a member of the Cumming Waves Swim Team, will swim in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London this summer, where she will compete in the 400 meter freestyle, 100 meter freestyle, 100 meter backstroke, relay race and possibly the 50 meter freestyle.

She qualified for London by finishing first in the U.S. in the 1,500 meter freestyle, second in the 100 meter backstroke, second in the 400 meter freestyle and third in the 200 meter individual medley.

Coan will travel to Canada to train next month, then come back to Georgia for a couple of weeks before flying to Germany, where she will continue to practice until her group travels to London.

"I’m pretty excited," Coan said. "I get a new U.S. swim cap with my name on it soon. It’s going to be an awesome experience.

"I’m going to try and win gold, but if I get bronze, that’s OK."

Like every athlete, Coan has a pregame food ritual. She eats Cheerios with Jif peanut butter, half of a banana and a chocolate brownie flavored Clif bar. She washes it down with a fruit punch flavored Powerade cut with water.

"She does it to keep her blood sugar stable," said her mother, Teresa Coan, the head coach of the Cumming Waves. "I’ve seen it before where people drink those energy drinks and crash midway through the race. We always joke that she needs to become a sponsor for Cheerios or something."

No matter the outcome of the Paralympic Games, McKenzie Coan has already achieved victories over numerous obstacles in her life.

When she was nine days old, she broke her leg when her mother burped her at 4 a.m. From there, the journey began.

"I knew something was wrong," Teresa Coan said. "The doctors thought it was hyperthyroidism at first, but later diagnosed her with OI. We saw a geneticist and then a physical therapist."

A few months later, Teresa  Coan met physical therapist Colleen O’Berry, who urged her to let McKenzie be a normal girl. O’Berry changed Teresa Coan’s outlook and set McKenzie Coan on a new course.

"She told me that I could act like she’s in a China cabinet or let her live," her mother said as her voice trembled. "So I decided to let her live life."

McKenzie Coan has canoed, hiked, ridden a bicycle and been a member of the Girl Scouts. She’s tried to do what others didn’t think she could accomplish.

Coan has a "goal wall" with feats she wants to accomplish. When she wakes up each morning, she looks at the wall and does what she can to come closer to achieving her goal. On June 17th, she achieved the last goal on her wall — to qualify for the Paralympic Games.

"You should always have a positive outlook on things you do," Coan said. "If you do, your performance will be better. I try to focus on my ability, not my disability."