I Hope My Story Can Inspire Someone The Way Other Paralympians Have Inspired Me
by McKenzie Coan
I was eight years old when I heard of the Paralympics for the first time. I was competing at a swim meet when a few officials came over after my race to ask me if I participated in adaptive sports. I had no idea what the Paralympics were. So, I went home and Googled it with my mom and saw Paralympic legends Jessica Long and Erin Popovich winning gold medals for our country. The best part was that I saw a representation of disability in sports that I hadn't yet experienced. Sure, I was completely comfortable being McKenzie, the sassy blonde in the pink wheelchair, racing up and down the pool deck before taking to the water. Still, there was something extraordinary about seeing people who looked like me on top of the podium.
I wanted to know everything about them. What were their stories? Did they deal with scary medical situations, too? How did they feel about being different from their peers? What was it that drew them to the water? What made them champions?
My mom and I spent hours on the computer, reading everything we could about these incredible athletes. I remember one night my mom said it was bedtime, I looked over and told her, "I'm gonna win a gold medal one day!" What a bold statement for a tiny, feisty 8-year-old. But something went off in me. Their stories of triumph and overcoming resonated with me and triggered a belief in myself that I was not limited. I could be the best in the world because their stories told me I could.
It wasn't long before I traveled the country with Blaze Sports, the adaptive sports and legacy organization of the Paralympic Games Atlanta 1996 as a part of their swim team. I was finally at competitions with other Paralympic athletes. I felt that I had a place where I belonged. I didn't know it, but my own story was already being written in those small moments. I was racing in heats next to the athletes I had Googled. I was wheeling around, having the Paralympians sign swim meet t-shirts that still hang in my childhood bedroom today. With each passing day, I was dreaming of the possibility that I could be the next national team member or Paralympian.
In 2012, I competed in my first Paralympic Games in London. In 2014, I started my Division I collegiate career at Loyola University Maryland. In 2016, I qualified for my second Games in Rio, winning three golds and a silver. With Worlds in between in 2015, 2017, and 2019, I was all gas and no brakes.
Then, 2020 hit. And we all know too well what happened.
Understandably and rightfully, the Games were postponed. With a little extra time, I finally reflected on the journey that had brought me to where I was. I thought about the stories and the people who had inspired me all those years ago, and I hoped to be that for even just one person in my career.
I reminisced about everything. I looked back on my happiest moments and most challenging times, and it hit me: they all played a role in the evolution of my career. I started looking through the countless journals I had written for years. Writing had always been a good escape and coping mechanism for me. All the stories, all the memories came flooding back.
As fate would have it, one day, I got a call from my agent, and he asked if I wanted to write a book, as I had hesitantly told him years prior that it was a goal for one day. I was ecstatic and on board. I took on the challenge with my amazing co-author and new friend, Holly Neumann, to write my story.
Like everything in my life and career, I go in fully committed, and writing my story was no different. I wrote and edited every day, having daily meetings with Holly. I treated it like a full-time job. It's funny because just as we started, I also decided to study for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), which took on a life of its own. I was also accepted to move to the Olympic Training Center to prepare for the Tokyo Games in a COVID bubble with other national team members. I always say I operate my best when I have a lot going on, and boy, did I live up to that.
Writing not only took me away from the stresses of the pandemic, but it also provided this cathartic release. I took a moment to reflect for the first time in my career. I realized my story, while crazy, was pretty powerful. At every moment, I asked myself, what could I tell that little 8-year-old girl? What could inspire her?
I had to dig deep to tell an accurate and authentic story. It's easy to write about my life's happier times, but I knew the challenges mattered just as much. As a little girl, I wanted to feel I could relate to others as I was in and out of the hospital and navigating a childhood where I didn't fit the typical mold. I had to tell the world I had doubts and fears, too. I wrote about being pulled around in a wagon while in body casts from major surgeries, about training and competing with fractures, and even how I felt about dating with a disability — talk about vulnerability! It felt scary sometimes to divulge some of my deep thoughts and feelings, but I just hoped it could help someone else know they weren't alone.
Fast forward about six months, and I had it in my hands: "Breaking Free: Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold." Titling my story was one of the hardest parts of the process. I went with “Breaking Free” because it perfectly described what I had done my entire life — broke free of not only the confines of my condition, overcoming countless fractures, but also from the opinions and doubts of people who told me I couldn't or that I wasn't enough. Those first few moments of holding my book felt surreal. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to share my story and how grateful I was for the entire process. I also never expected that writing my own book would impact me just as I hoped it would impact others.
The months after the book launch were a blur with leaving for Tokyo, and I didn't completely feel the impact of my work until I returned home. I'll never forget my first book signing, having people come up holding “Breaking Free” and telling me they were inspired to follow their dreams. I can't help but wonder what that little 8-year-old McKenzie would've said if I told her that one day, she could make an impact in the lives of others.
With the road to the Paralympic Games Paris 2024 ramping up, I'm constantly thinking about the possibility of my fourth Games in front of me. I appreciate every moment and practice and am thankful for the sacrifices and hard work to get here. Like every journey, this one is vastly different from Tokyo, and each day, I'm creating new stories and lessons for the next cycle into LA 2028.
I'll leave you with this: Never be afraid to share your journey. It only takes one person, one story, to make a difference.
You never know who you could inspire; it could very well be the next Paralympic Champion.