Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Paralympic World-Record Holder McKenzie Coan Shows Incredible Range

Brian Loeffler and McKenzie Coan

Champion’s Mojo Podcast: Paralympic World-Record Holder McKenzie Coan Shows Incredible Range

McKenzie Coan has broken 65 bones in her body. The Rio 2016 Paralympic gold medalist joins the Champion’s Mojo Podcast to discuss how the ability to remain positive has been so crucial in her success. She talks about how, despite the fact that having Brittle Bone Disease makes it easier to break her bones, she never lets it break her spirit. She won gold in Rio in the 50 freestyle and holds Paralympic world records in the 800 and 1500 freestyle, showing incredible range. How does she do it?

“I will never look at what others say are my disadvantages or my limitations as something negative, because I think they are my greatest strengths.” – McKenzie Coan

Below is an abridged Q&A of the interview, conducted by Kelly Palace and Maria Parker, with McKenzie Coan. You can listen to the full podcast episode #101 at or by clicking here.

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us a little about what you’ve been up to.

McKenzie Coan: The last few years, since Rio, really have been so much fun. You know, I finished up my NCAA career at Loyola back in 2018. I was able to sign with a sports company a couple of months after that and began my professional career. It has been such a fun ride. I actually chose to continue training at Loyola as part of a postgraduate Paralympic group. Last year, when the pandemic really started to ramp up here, I made the decision to leave Baltimore. It was definitely not an easy decision. I really loved my training environment there. With my disorder, I actually am at really high risk for severe COVID-19 complications. I was actually talking to my parents and I was like, ‘Mom, Dad, with all the pools shut down, would you let me put an eight-foot pool in our garage to train in?’ They were all on board. They were like, let’s make this happen. It was difficult to leave Baltimore, but I knew I could get some type of training and be in the water somehow if I went home. I spent about seven, eight months there at home. Then, at the end of September, I made the decision to go to Colorado. The National Team was allowing athletes to come out to Colorado Springs and train and I jumped at the opportunity and I have been loving it. The altitude is something else. I’m used to coming out here for camp and I actually lived out here for summer in 2017. You get acclimated to it, but then you leave and you forget how difficult it is. I’m having a great time. There’s about 10 of us National Team members out here and being able to come in every day and have access to a long-course pool like that is such a huge thing right now. I’m very grateful and I’m really enjoying my time out here.

Champion’s Mojo: Are you in a bubble while training in Colorado Springs?

McKenzie Coan: Yeah, we are. We have obviously a lot of rules in place for our own good and our own safety, but it is very much like a bubble. We are very separated from the other sports. I think there’s probably like three or four other resident sports that are allowed to train out here right now. There’s probably less than 30 of us out here. It’s a very tight knit, close group, but like very kind of shielded from the outside world. It feels like we have our own little world going here. It feels very safe and secure.

Champion’s Mojo: How did you get into Paralympic swimming and can you tell us a little bit more about what it is?

McKenzie Coan

Photo Courtesy: CG Sports

McKenzie Coan: The Paralympics certainly have a lot of differences from the Olympics. One thing that I always really love to make sure people know is that para means parallel to the Olympic Games. Paralympics is the same elite level, high competition sporting event as the Olympics and the Olympic Games, but it’s for people who happen to have a physical impairment or a physical disability. I actually didn’t learn about Paralympics until I was approached at a swim meet when I was eight years old. I had never heard of it. When they came up to me, I was like, what are you talking about? They’re like, well, do you know the Olympics? I’m like, yeah, of course I know the Olympics. Like, I live for the Olympics, like little eight year old me. They started telling me that you have your talent and you have this opportunity and you have a disability. They started explaining the classification system to me and buckle your seat belts because the classification system is probably one of the most precise but most difficult things to understand. So there are 14 different classifications and they range from one all the way to 14, with one being the most disabled. You have physical impairments from S1 to S10, with S10 being the least disabled. Then you have S11, S12 and S13, which are visual impairments. Eleven is completely blind, and then above that they share some similarities in terms of what vision they have, but it’s distinct from each other. Fourteen is for intellectual impairments that cause someone to maybe have a slower reaction off the block or it interferes with their ability to count laps and that sort of thing. The beauty of the Paralympics is that it doesn’t matter if it’s wheelchair basketball or track and field, you’re always going to be in groups of people with the same type of disability as your own. Even though it’s a very difficult kind of system to understand, it breaks it down and creates an even playing field. That’s the beauty of it, to be able to go out and have these opportunities and race against people with your own abilities. It’s amazing. There are some differences. In the morning we have prelims. In the 400 free, I’m pretty good at that event, so I always tend to be in the fastest heat while I’m probably going to be next to visually impaired swimmers. When it comes to finals, it’s going to be broken down into my own classification, swimming against those swimmers. One other thing that I think really kind of describes some of our bigger differences is our team selection procedures when it comes to a Paralympic Games. You have Olympic Trials in Omaha and you see the first and second person punch their ticket to the Games or those relay spots punch their ticket to the Games. It’s not quite like that at our Trials. I could go out and finish first or second, but if you don’t have a high enough world ranking, you won’t be able to go. Everything we do when it comes to team selection is world ranking.

Champion’s Mojo: Do you follow the other Paralympians in your category?

McKenzie Coan: Oh, absolutely! I think sometimes I work really, really hard with my sports psychologist to stay in a good place. I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now and I’m very lucky to have that National Team benefit where I have access to a sports psychologist whenever I need one. I think she’s taught me a little bit because you’ve got to chill. You’ve got to stop looking at your rankings, like you have to stop going on the Internet to see what they’re up to. I do try really hard to stay on top of that. I noticed at some point it could be detrimental, but I also think it motivates me every single day to know what other people are up to and to know that even though I’m not right beside them at a national level, I’m still racing them. That kind of gets me ready to go out and do the real thing when it comes to a World Championships or Olympic Games. I put myself in that position mentally time and time again, even if I’m not physically next to them so I know I’m ready to face it.

Champion’s Mojo: Are there junior levels for Paralympic competitions?

McKenzie Coan: When I first got involved in Para at eight years old, I joined an adapted program in Georgia called Play Sports. When I joined, they had a lot of local level meets and it was crazy because I would see all of these kids, young kids with disabilities. One big difference is we’re all based on a classification system. It’s not by age. I remember a little nine year old me at Paralympic meets swimming next to someone who was 22 years old. I remember going to all these meets and seeing all these kids with disabilities swimming. I’d be like, where have they been? I’d been doing able bodied swimming for a long time and I never had the luxury of seeing someone else that looked like me on the pool deck until then. I felt so at home. Not everybody that comes into it has to be so elite, they just really love swimming. They love the sport. That doesn’t mean they have goals to go to Games or whatever it might be. They just want to take part and enjoy it. I think that’s also the beauty of it, just having these opportunities for kids. I think sports play such a huge role in our development. I say it time and time again, but I have learned more from my time in the water about life than anywhere else or anything else in my life. I think it’s really amazing to have those local adaptive opportunities outside of kind of the elite competitiveness if you want to go that route. Just to have those opportunities for young children to experience is great.

Champion’s Mojo: What has your mindset been with your struggles and how have you learned to adjust?

McKenzie Coan: It’s taken a lot of reflection and a lot of mental training to get to this place. I’m going to say something that sounds kind of crazy. Every single setback and every single piece of adversity I’ve ever faced has given me so much in my life and I will never allow myself to look at what others may say are my disadvantages or my limitations as something negative. I think they’re my greatest strengths. They have given me everything and more. Back in 2008, I went through it. I had metal rods in my legs when I was younger, growing up, to get taller. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen for very long because I’m very short. Along the way, when I was growing, they would have to switch out the rods because I’d outgrow them with the bone and back in 2008, that was my last set of rods that they had to replace. It was a very, very bad surgery. I had many complications. I lost a lot of blood. I was supposed to only be in the hospital for one night. I ended up staying in the ICU for a week. At one point there were so many drugs in my system, I was on oxygen and they didn’t know if I was going to make it out of it. I remember very little from that week. I remember I was in and out of consciousness. I have these moments of just sheer clarity and it’s the craziest thing. I remember thinking to myself, I’m not done here. I can’t leave, I’m not done. There’s so much more I want to do. I have so much unfinished business in the pool and life and I have to show other people that this does not have to define me. This will not be my end. If I make it through this, it’s going to be a hard road to recovery. Let me tell you, two months in a body cast after that was not easy. That’s when I really learned even in the darkest moments and the darkest places you can find good in that. If I can spread that message to people through my swimming, then I think I will have done my job here.

Champion’s Mojo: How are you able to stay so positive throughout everything?

McKenzie Coan

Photo Courtesy: CG Sports

McKenzie Coan: My mom and I, from very early on, came up with this system. When something bad happens to me, I’m given two days to wallow in it. I can be angry at the world, cry, let it out and then you don’t bury your feelings. But after that point, you no longer allow your emotions to overcome you. This is why I’ve worked a lot with my sports psychologist. I take those two days and then after that I go into a space of OK, I can still feel this. This still sucks. This hurts a lot. I might be out of the water for a bit, but what am I going to do that’s going to help me get through this and see the end of this quicker? It’s all about making the most of every day. I’m so used to it by now. I’ll break my shoulder and I’ll be back in the water within, like, a day or two, even against my doctor’s wishes. That’s just how I am. I break my feet on turns so much and I break my fingers on finishes all the time. That sort of thing doesn’t bother me. I’ll just swim through it. When you have something like a broken femur, which in my opinion, having broken everything, is the most painful, will put me down for maybe a week before I can get back in the water. In that week’s time, I’ll take my time. I’ll be angry about it. Or I’ll say to myself, however I did it, well that was really dumb. I wish I wouldn’t have done that. Then it’s about getting into a productive mindset. How am I going to use this to come out stronger on the other side of it? What can I do right now? I remember this one time my mom went and got me little five pound weights, and I swear I would take like an hour or two at a time and just do exercises with them from the bed. I’m like, you know what? I can’t do what I was doing before, but I’m going to hold on to whatever I possibly can to make it a little bit easier when I get back because I will come back from this.

Champion’s Mojo: How do you handle something like breaking your foot or hand while swimming?

McKenzie Coan: This is actually kind of funny. I don’t really know if I’ve ever told anybody this. I have my emergency break kit and inside of it is an ice pack and then I have like athletic tape. I’ll never forget this. We were coming up on a meet in Canada, like a couple of years ago. It was so dumb. I went up to the side of the pool. We were swimming at like two different pools at the time and I’d been here a million times before. I was not paying attention, like just being silly and like I jumped in for warm up. My right leg is worse than my left so I always kind of like, bend my right leg up so it doesn’t hit the bottom because that would be worse than my left leg. It was only like four feet of water. I definitely was not paying attention and just slammed on the bottom of my foot, my left foot. I felt it. I was like, that was a crack. I looked down and was like, yeah that’s definitely broken. Here is where my mindset came in. I was like, well, nothing I can do about it now. I just swam through practice and then at the end I got out my emergency break kit and I taped it up and went about my day. I think to a lot of people on the outside looking in, it would be, oh my gosh, we have to get you to a doctor. You have to keep in mind that it happens to me all the time and, while it’s a difficult part of my life, it is a part of my life. It’s a part of me. It’s part of what has made me who I am. I think that’s why I have such a mindset of, well, that happened but there’s nothing I can do about it. It happens all the time so let’s keep going.

Champion’s Mojo: You have records in everything from the 50 to the 1500. How do you approach such a wide range?

McKenzie Coan: It’s really crazy looking back on, I would say like the last five or six years. Obviously going into Rio, I knew how much I loved distance. It’s just always been my favorite thing. I would say like the 400 long course and the mile long course are my favorite events to swim. It is just so much fun to me. Going into Rio, I remember we were a year out and I sat down with my coach at Loyola, Brian Loeffler, and we were talking and he goes, ‘I can really see your sprint really coming together. I could see you developing into a really great sprinter.’ I remember I was kind of sitting there and I was like, I’m a distance swimmer. I’ve never been known for sprinting. In the back of my mind I was like, I’m in college in a new environment with new training, I think I could do this. We took that year and that was the hardest, most intense training I’ve ever done in my entire life. To say that I wasn’t nervous and scared to death, going into Rio while trying to become a sprinter, that would be a lie because I was very freaked out. I think as we went on, I was doing all my usual yardage, like cranking out crazy long sets, like doing everything that I’ve been used to doing, but also adding in some really good sprinting. At the end of every practice, no matter what we did, I told Brian we’re going to do a 50 off the blocks for time. Let me tell you, there were some days where it wasn’t pretty. Just having that pressure on me every single day to perform, even when I was dead tired, having to pick myself off the deck, get on the block and just do it, gave me the confidence to be able to go out there on that day in Rio and not only break a Paralympic record, but win a gold medal. It’s actually kind of a big joke in my family because my younger brother, Eli, who is a senior at North Carolina, is the sprinter in the family. He’s a 50 freestyler and always has been. I came off the podium with my gold medal. I went up into the stands and he goes, you know, I always knew that you were going to do this. I always knew that you would win a gold medal, I just never thought it would be in the 50 free. Obviously there’s very different strategies going into these races. I almost feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I’m kind of like two different swimmers in one. I’m able to turn on one gear and completely forget about the other. When it comes down to it, I’m able to get the job done.

Champion’s Mojo: I read that you’re interested in going into politics. Is that still true and how does your ability to goal set affect that?

McKenzie Coan: I attribute my goal setting and my work ethic to my parents and my family. Growing up with a disease like mine, you go through a lot of uncertain times. I remember I was 12 years old and I was in and out of the hospital every three months. I was getting these treatments that they use with bone cancer patients to strengthen their bones. I would go in every three months and I would get it through an IV and I’d be in the hospital for three days and I would just get so unbelievably sick and weak and I couldn’t even hold my head up sometimes. I remember this one time I was 12 years old and I had never seen the movie Legally Blond, but it was on the hospital TV. I remember watching it and just seeing Elle Woods, who was just so positive about life. She was so smart and so many people doubted her. I really related to that. I had people and I still have people today throughout my life try to tell me you’re too weak to do that. You’re too fragile. Like, why in the world would you go out and try that? I fell in love with the movie because I really resonated with it. I was like a lawyer, like I could really make a difference with that. I started thinking, at 12 years old, what can I do for other people with a disability as a lawyer? I started thinking, OK, well, a lot of lawyers go on to be politicians and they make policy and they make a difference in their communities. I knew right away that that’s who I wanted to be. At the time I actually had my mom go buy Legally Blond, and then the rest of the hospital stay we watched it on repeat. I just fell in love with it. I went ahead and I applied to law school this year. I will defer starting until 2022, but I’ve gotten into every law school I’ve applied to. It’s a dream come true and I really hope that I can take that and help others. I want other people to see and to know that young athletes, you can be everything. You can be a great athlete in and out of the water. I was actually talking to my coach about this the other day because he asked me how law school was going. I said that I had gotten in everywhere and he said that swimmers are such overachievers. Maybe a little bit. I think it’s just in our DNA. You can have all these different dreams, and if you’re willing to work hard in the pool and in the classroom, you can get incredible scholarships to swim collegiately. You can take it to the next level. You can work really hard in college and finish up your college career and then go on to do great things afterwards. There’s so many opportunities out there. I hope through this I can show people that as well.

Champion’s Mojo: You’re an inspiration for so many people, but who inspires you?

2016 U.S. Paralympic Swim Team

Photo Courtesy: Matt Hermes

McKenzie Coan: I’ve been really fortunate throughout my life. I look at myself as incredibly lucky. I think I gained a whole heck of a lot of perspective being in some of the situations I was in, being in and out of hospitals and actually going back on that for a moment. If I went into the hospital, three days was the norm. Sometimes I would get super sick and I’d end up being kept for observation for longer. Sometimes I’d be in there for a week. Before my infusions would start, on my way to the hospital, my mom and I would make up these little bags of candy, coloring books, and whatever else we could buy and we’d hand them out to kids on the floor, or to nurses who would go in and give them to kids who couldn’t leave their room. Meeting some of those kids and hearing their stories and knowing what they were up against, I just remember thinking, I’m going to pray for them and I know they’ll make it through this. Looking at my life, I’m so fortunate. I’m so blessed and I think about them all the time. That was the inspiration to go back and to live every single day when I would get out of the hospital. I’d get back in the pool and I’d be like, wow, I have this opportunity to do this. Not all of them have the same opportunity. I really wanted to go out and do that for them. I think just everyone I’ve been fortunate enough to meet along the way and that’s shared their story with me has been all the motivation and inspiration I could ask for. I really focus on doing it for them.

Champion’s Mojo: Tell us a little about your charity work.

McKenzie Coan: So that type of thing that we did kind of turned into something much bigger. When I was in high school, I started my own organization called Kinzie Kares and, through it, I’m able to visit hospitals, doctors offices, different adapted programs, and not only be able to share my story with them, but also hand out coloring books, crayons, much of the same thing that I did when I was younger. I know how difficult it is to be in that position, and I know that sometimes, even when you’re trying to hold on to the optimism and the hope, how dark it can be and just the smallest thing to put a smile on their face or to make them forget about the pain or the sickness for a moment means everything to me. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to meet so many incredible kids and so many incredible families through it.

Champion’s Mojo: What changes do you hope to make someday in the disabled community?

McKenzie Coan: I’d love to see acceptance. And that looks very different and has all kinds of forms, whether it’s accessibility issues or just social issues surrounding it. I want acceptance. I want norms. I think that in society we kind of have this really bad habit of looking at disabled people and giving them a shot or giving them a chance like it’s kind of a charity or tokenism, if you will. It’s not. These are people. I’m a human being who just happens to have a disability. I might have physical differences. I get around in a wheelchair or I walk differently from other people, but that doesn’t change me. That doesn’t change my goals. That doesn’t change my dreams. We need to make society more accessible for people with disabilities. We need to offer them opportunities to go out and live their dreams and look at them as members of society who are here to contribute just like anybody else. I think as much as a disability has helped shape who I am, it is not the overall essence of me. I am a person with goals and dreams, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to overcome any obstacle that might be in my way to get there. I know that’s the same for many people. I want to change, and I know it sounds like a big undertaking, but I want to change the landscape of society for people with disabilities.

Champion’s Mojo: Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you’d like to talk about?

McKenzie Coan: I just want to put out there to young swimmers who are just starting out in the sport or maybe to the swimmers who have had a rough patch or anything else in their careers. Keep going. It is so worth it. I’ve had my hard moments in the pool before, too, but keep going. A champion’s mindset isn’t always about breaking records and winning gold medals. What makes a champion is going out on your lowest day or on the day that you fail or the day that you lose and still giving your all, still giving your best and refusing to quit. That’s just something I always like to tell young athletes and, you know, really any athlete in general. Keep going.

Champion’s Mojo: This has been absolutely fantastic! Thank you for your time and the inspiration!

McKenzie Coan: Thank you! It’s been awesome!