‘We Have To Keep Moving Forward:’ McKenzie Coan’s Advocacy Goes Hand-In-Hand With Her Swimming
by Nicole Haase
McKenzie Coan reacts after winning the gold medal in the women's 400-meter freestyle S7 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 29, 2021 in Tokyo.
Growing up in Clarkesville, Georgia, McKenzie Coan has vivid memories of attending sporting events at Clemson University with her father, an alum of the school. There were many football and men’s basketball games, but she said she wasn’t really exposed to a lot of women’s NCAA sports as a kid. In fact, she didn’t even really know they existed, or that playing sports in college was an option for women.
“I didn’t know what kind of opportunities existed for females who wanted to compete in college. I didn’t know what that looked like,” she said.
It wasn’t until Coan got involved with the U.S. Para swimming team as a teenager that she began to understand the importance of women’s college sports. Now 25, Coan is a three-time Paralympian and has six medals — four of them gold — to her name. Yet her college experience remains foundational to her, both in and out of the pool.
A 2018 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, Coan swam four years at the Division I university under coach Brian Loeffler.
“I didn’t know what opportunities were available for athletes with a disability,” said Coan, who was diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease) as a child. “I also didn’t know what kind of opportunities existed for females who wanted to compete in college. I found this whole other world of competitive energy and drive, and you could do it at large institutions where not only you are getting an excellent education but you also have the chance to shine as a female athlete on the collegiate stage.”
While at Loyola, Coan came to identify with the idea of “Cura Personalis,” a Jesuit tenet that means “care for the entire person.” She wasn’t familiar with what it meant to get a Jesuit education before choosing Loyola, but in retrospect she says spending time at the university has had a big influence in shaping the person she is today.
“When I got there, I finally had the chance to embrace all of who I was, not only as McKenzie the athlete,” she said. “That was so rewarding to me. It’s a huge reflection on what I had done at Loyola not only as an athlete, but academically, who I had become as a person and realizing that I just grew so much. (Loyola) definitely helped me grow in a way that I didn’t even think was possible.”
While at Loyola, Coan interned in the Office of Student Development and then took a job there after graduation while she trained for Tokyo. She had always planned to attend law school, and with her training schedule, had planned to defer her enrollment until after the Paralympics.
In her role, Coan worked on a number of concerns around Title IX, which helped solidify that advocacy was where her passion lay.
McKenzie Coan and Giulia Terzi (Team Italy) celebrate during the medal ceremony for the women's 100-meter freestyle S7 final at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 31, 2021 in Tokyo.
While Coan plans to compete at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 and possibly Paralympic Games Los Angeles 2028 as well — she says she has unfinished business — she has also started to see that there may be a bigger role for her within Team USA and the Paralympic community. Coan’s life as a female athlete and a Paralympian intersect in so many ways, and many of the fights and protections needed overlap. Fighting for more exposure, accessibility and opportunities for disabled women athletes is a crucial part of what Coan hopes to accomplish.
“There are a lot of protections in place with Title IX. We’ve come so far, but I do think it shows me how much further we need to go and how much more progress we could make,” she said. “That’s the inspiring thing for me. I would love to be a part of that change.”
The first step in that journey will be enrolling at the University of Baltimore’s law school. Coan received acceptance into every law school she applied to and had initially chosen Rutgers for its proximity to New York City. However, she has since decided that training with Loeffler while she prepares for Paris and attending the University of Baltimore part time is the best way for her to achieve all her goals.
“I’m very, very excited and hoping that I’ll be able to make a real difference in the lives of women and girls after I’m done,” she said.
Coan’s osteogenesis imperfecta has led to hundreds of fractures and broken bones in her life. She often has to adjust her training to account for these constant injuries. Setbacks are simply a way of life for Coan. But, she said, they’ve made her flexible and adaptable and very creative. She’s not afraid of a challenge and she’s incredibly competitive.
“It doesn’t scare me to look an obstacle in the eye and say, ‘I’m going to try to handle this.’ That has never scared me before,” she said. “(That) has really played into how I will not only approach law school, but approach advocacy for people in the future.”
It does not faze Coan that it’s been 50 years since Title IX and there are still inequities. There are many similarities in how the world talks about Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), another piece of legislation that she is familiar with and willing to fight for. Both laws are written in a way that give a lot of freedom in how they are interpreted and enforced.
“Simply paying attention to it and trying to prove that you’re not openly discriminating is unacceptable,” she said. “That’s not going to cut it if we want to make meaningful change and make a future where everybody — and let me say this: everyone — can participate.
“Unless there’s action and real things taking place, and real change and forward momentum happening, it doesn’t mean a thing. It’s actually taking us backwards. Unless you back it up with actual actions, it’s just empty words and empty promises. And that, to me, is unacceptable. I don’t vibe with people who make empty promises with empty words. I simply do not. Title IX and feminism and women’s sports cannot vibe with that either, because people will get nowhere. We will get nowhere. We will stay stagnant and that’s the exact opposite of what we want to do. We cannot remain stagnant. We have to keep moving forward.”