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Loyola Maryland graduate McKenzie Coan raising bar with third straight world championship in para swimming

McKenzie Coan continues to defy the odds.

When she was diagnosed at just 19 days old with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by bones that break easily, Coan’s parents, Marc and Teresa, were told that their daughter would be unable to sit, stand, walk, or even hold up her head on her own.

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Last Monday — one day before her 26th birthday — Coan captured her third consecutive world championship in the 400-meter freestyle at the Para Swimming World Championships in Madeira, Portugal. The 2018 Loyola Maryland graduate already owns gold medals in the event from the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021.

Coan added a world title in the 50 freestyle Friday and 100 freestyle a day later, a bronze medal in the 100 backstroke Wednesday and a silver medal in the mixed 400 freestyle relay Saturday.

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“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be sitting here in Portugal as a three-peat world champion in this event,” she wrote via email. “I love the 400 freestyle, and in a sense, I truly believe I was born to swim it.”

Coan’s domination in the 400 might be the least shocking development to her coach Brian Loeffler, who helms the men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs at Loyola.

“I see it every day in the pool,” Loeffler said. “She’s got an incredible work ethic, an infectious smile, an upbeat personality. She rarely has a day off where she’s not trying to get to a high level and where she’s not excited to work.”

Coan competes as a swimmer in the S7, SB6 and SM7 classifications, which include amputees, as well as athletes with cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and other impairments.

Coan — who said she was inspired to take up swimming after watching Jessica Long, another Paralympic swimmer from Baltimore, accumulate 51 gold medals at the Paralympic and world championship levels — has already exhilarated the next generation of swimmers.

“I was standing up cheering the whole race and had somebody describing to me each stroke she took and telling me her splits so I could keep track of her while she was racing,” said Greyhounds junior swimmer McClain Hermes, who accompanied Coan to Portugal and is blind in her right eye and has limited vision in her left. “I know that she is capable of amazing things, and she showed such grit and determination going out there and crushing the race. McKenzie never lets any adversity or obstacle stop her. She is an inspiration and hero to me.”

Coan’s journey is remarkable considering her beginnings. She was born in Georgia undersized and underweight despite being an almost full-term infant and with a broken femur. A few days later, her mother heard a snap while she was burping her daughter, who was later diagnosed at an area hospital with a broken arm.

Despite the osteogenesis imperfecta diagnosis, Coan credited her parents with treating her as they did her two older brothers, Grant and Eli.

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“I know it had to be scary for my parents, but they were determined I would have every opportunity to succeed, and I’m very grateful for that,” Coan said. “They never allowed me to feel any different from other kids or my two brothers and taught me that my OI is a blessing, not a curse.”

Coan’s body is very susceptible to injury. She said she has suffered at least 100 fractures, including breaking a bone while folding clothes. Hermes said she felt guilty when she made Coan laugh and she dropped a water bottle on her foot leading to another fracture, and Loeffler said Coan only reintroduced the backstroke to her swimming regimen about 18 months ago because of the stress the movement was placing on her ribs.

Despite it all, Coan said she was not deterred in her desire to swim, which she began doing in 2001.

“There have been difficult moments with my disease, no doubt, but I see the beauty of the challenges that accompany it,” she said. “Every fracture is the opportunity to come out stronger on the other side of it. I always say I could look at my OI as something that happened to me or something that happened for me. I will always choose the latter.”

Hermes, who finished fourth in the 100 backstroke S11 and fifth in the 100 freestyle S11, has known Coan for nearly 10 years as they are both from Georgia and swam for the same Paralympic developmental team and coach. Hermes said training with Coan has given her a glimpse into Coan’s determination.

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Loeffler, who discovered Coan at regional Paralympic meets when she was of high school age, said Coan has a strong upper body that allows her to push through a significant amount of water in her races. Although she uses a wheelchair in her daily life, Loeffler said it is more of a protective measure to prevent a fall or collision that could lead to more broken bones.

“I would say this is the case for most people with physical disabilities, they just want to be seen as normal,” Loeffler said of athletes like Coan. “They don’t want any special attention. They want it to be fair. So I do think that she tries to maintain a normal lifestyle and do normal things.”

Coan, who swam for the Greyhounds in dual meets and at the Easteron College Athletic Conference championships, credited the university with shaping her into the person she is today. That included allowing her to complete work ahead of time or meet for office hours to accommodate her swimming schedule.

“I always say that being a D-I athlete, full-time student, and national team member simultaneously will be the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

When she returns from Portugal, Coan plans to attend the University of Baltimore Law School in pursuit of a degree in civil rights with a focus on disability advocacy. She admitted that she is at a loss for words to describe her latest achievement.

“The most accurate way I can put it is it brought me back to the joy I had as a child racing in my favorite event, only this time, I had become the best in the world,” she said. “Standing on the podium with a gold medal as the national anthem plays is a moment forever ingrained in my heart and mind. When I need strength before a race, particularly in something as long and demanding as a 400, I think of that.”

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Outside of the pool, Coan has built partnerships with adidas, Lending Tree, and a few other sponsors. She has also been tapped to speak at summits, launched an organization called “Kenzie Kares” that seeks to assist children with life-threatening conditions in U.S. hospitals and penned in 2021 a memoir titled “Breaking Free: Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold.”

Loeffler called it “super rewarding” to witness Coan’s evolution.

“For her to also have a professional life outside of swimming through her story and success, I find that rewarding as well,” he said, “because a lot of athletes aren’t able to do that.”


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