Paralympics: McKenzie Coan Has Come a Long Way From Garage Pool to Tokyo

McKenzie Coan
McKenzie Coan; Photo Courtesy: CG Sports

Paralympics: McKenzie Coan Has Come a Long Way From Garage Pool to Tokyo

McKenzie Coan expected to spend part of the summer of 2020 in Tokyo. Instead, the two-time Paralympian spent it far from Japan’s mega-metropolis.

Very far, indeed, as in her hometown of Clarkesville, Georgia, with a “teeny, tiny” population of 1,754.

For eight months, Coan was back in Georgia, sheltering from the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptions to her training with her parents. Like many of us non-elite swimmers, salvation came via mail order: An eight-foot pool and tether she set up at home, saving her from the imperfect mimicry and monotony of bands and weights.

“I went online and I started doing a little bit of research and I went to my parents and I literally asked them, can I get this eight-foot tethered swimming pool and can I put it in your garage?” Coan said. “And there was a moment of just dead silence from them, staring at them, and I remember my dad goes, ‘are you serious?’ and I was like, ‘yeah, I found it online and they have one left in stock.’ And they were like, ‘yeah, let’s do it, let’s go.’

McKenzie Coan

McKenzie Coan; Photo Courtesy: CG Sports

“So I ordered it and it came, and my mom and I put it together the wrong way the first time, so we had to completely disassemble it and put it back together.”

Assembly issues solved, there was also the matter of sweeping splashed-out water from the garage floor. But Coan, who fortunately for the pool’s dimensions stands 4-foot-3, describes the improvised training setup with utopian retrospect. With music blaring, the garage pool was less silver lining that genuine source of joy for five months of what could’ve been a dark time.

“It was a good time,” she said. “I had the music blasting. Every day, I’d have to sweep the water out of the garage so it didn’t completely ruin the floor. But training at home in the garage was a really unique and kind of fun experience.”

The pool is emblematic of how Coan has recalibrated expectations in the quest to swim in Tokyo, which will be her third Paralympic Games. She holds three gold medals and one silver, all in S7 competition from Rio in 2016. She added four gold medals and one silver at the 2017 World Championships and two golds and three silvers at 2019 Worlds.

The Olympic and Paralympic postponement, announced in March 2020, was no surprise to Coan, who’d come to see it as inevitable as the world grappled with COVID-19. Her first reactions were coupled. She felt the quandary of how to extend her training another year (Coan turned 25 in June and was accepted to Rutgers Law School for 2022). But she also grasped the opportunity for another year of improvement, however briefly delayed by a misplaced Allen wrench that might have been.


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One vision, drawing on her experience in London and Rio, has been top of mind throughout.

“The most exciting part for me is getting to the Village and walking into the pool for the first time and seeing the stands and seeing everything and just imagining what can happen for you in there and what can happen for Team USA,” Coan said. “I think I’ve had that vision in my head every single day. I think about it all the time, and just being able to get to Tokyo and to walk into that pool and say, wow, I made it here, we made it here and, like Evan said, the world made it here. We got through this together. And I think it’s going to be just such a big celebration of that, and I truly cannot wait to hopefully step on the blocks in Tokyo and show the world what we can do.”

Her training situation has changed considerably in 2021, as has the extent of the “we” striving for Tokyo. Fond as the memories of the garage pool are, she upgraded slightly to the Olympic Training Center. With resident coach Nathan Manley and a sizeable contingent of Paralympians that includes Jessica Long, Coan has slightly more resources available than can be shipped by Amazon.

After five months of garage swimming, she began to appreciate what was missing: Focused weight-training facilities, direct coaching, swimmers to compete with and against. She made the trek in September and speaks glowingly about the opportunity in the pool and the feeling of security outside it.

“It’s been a really great experience,” Coan said. “I cannot thank Nathan, our coach out here, and our strength and conditioning staff, the dining hall staff, everyone has been so amazing and so supportive to make this the best environment that it can possibly be, in terms of everything from safety to just a healthy, positive environment going into these Games. It’s been a really great experience. It’s almost like a dream fulfilled because I always wondered what it would be like to live and train out here. I come out there every now and then for national team camps and for a few weeks at a time, but this has been really fun.”

Having training partners at the OTC is a bonus. Long spent 75 days out of the water last spring, and while she was happy with how she maintained her fitness on dry land, her return to the water meant training alone. The 23-time Paralympic medalist and 35-time world champion knew that arrangement wasn’t conducive to her short-term motivation or long-term success, so she sought out the chance to train in Colorado Springs.

Having Coan there to drive her and vice versa has been an important step for both.

“It’s an amazing environment,” Long said. “Everyone out here is so incredibly kind. The team is so phenomenal. This is everything that I’ve been wanting, so be part of a team – when we play our music, when we go through sets, when we encourage each other, this is truly such an amazing environment. McKenzie is an incredible athlete, a true competitor and she has challenged me every single day and I love how we are able to encourage each other to continue pushing through each tough set.”

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3 years ago

Well done – the message is clear – never give up!

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