LEAD Intern Mary Motch interviews our first LEAD speaker for 2019, McKenzie Coan. McKenzie is a 2-time Paralympian (2012, 2016) and 3-time Para Olympic gold medalist and is currently training for the Tokyo 2020 Para Olympic Games. She recently broke the World Record in the 1500m freestyle at US Para Nationals.

The water has always been the safest place for me to be, so it really worked out for me because it ended up being my favorite place in the world. I felt like everyone else for the first time in my life and I felt like I didn’t have any limitations.
— McKenzie Coan

MM: What did you aspire to be when you were younger?

MC: I started swimming when I was four and right away, I was really competitive! So right away when I was younger, I was telling people that I wanted to be a competitive swimmer and win gold medals.  And it’s really funny that it has come full circle [because] that was one of my big things when I was younger! It’s just really funny to think about.

MM: What was the most powerful advice you received during your career?

MC: I have been lucky to meet some really powerful people in my life. But I would say that when Glen Mills came to my pool, who qualified for the 1980 Olympics when we boycotted, he told me to never let anybody else to tell me what I’m capable of. It was him and Olympian Josh Davis, and ever since then I have taken it and run with it. Especially in my life, I have encountered people that tell me I shouldn’t be doing this, it’s not good for my health or you are incapable of doing this with your body and everything. But I have always remembered what they have told me to never give up and never let anyone tell me what I can and cannot do. So, I think that has been the most powerful thing moving me in my career.

MM: What would you tell younger self about your life now?

MC: I started on the National Team when I was pretty young and sometimes it was so easy to get caught up in making certain times or making sure that I was doing this or that and I kind of lost myself in the process. So I would tell myself to probably say slow down, take it all in because it goes by so quickly. I have now been on the National Team for 7 years and have been to 2 [Olympic] Games, so to tell myself to take deep breath and let it happen as it happens. Because I think I was always so eager to move onto the next thing that I missed some things along the way. I would say to take every little milestone as it comes whether it was making another National Team or going to an international competition, and take it in a little more and enjoy the process. All the hard work I put in it adds up and you should just enjoy what you are doing in the moment.

MM: Did someone inspire your love for swimming or did you come to the water right away?

MC: So, with my condition, which is called Osteogenesis Imperfecta or IO for short, they knew from an early age that I was really fragile. And both of my parents are really athletic, and my brothers played every sport imaginable, so there was always a question of what is McKenzie going to do. So, from an early age they did aqua therapy with me and I absolutely loved the water. So, my brothers were dragged to the pool with me multiple times a week. So, they joined the swim team and that’s how I got started with it. The water has always been the safest place for me to be, so it really worked out for me because it ended up being my favorite place in the world. I felt like everyone else for the first time in my life and I felt like I didn’t have any limitations. So, as I got into it and paid attention to the sport when I was younger, that’s when I started to say I wanted to win gold medals like Natalie Coughlin. So the combination between the water being the safest place for me and the Olympic swimmers inspiring me.

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MM: What is your favorite thing about swimming?

MC: I would say the one thing that hasn’t changed in my career - and that was true since the first day I started swimming - would be my love for the water. I know that sounds so weird, but I walk in every single day and I know not every single day is easy to walk in for practice. But I am happy to be there and to be in the water and that limitless feeling I feel and how I feel just like everyone else.

MM: What brings out your confidence when you are feeling low?

MC: I think that it is so easy to get into a training slump or not feel great after a bad meet. So, what I do is think back to when I had a good practice or and just remind myself of everything else, I have done in the past. I have been fortunate to have a lot of sports psychology on the National Team. So reminding myself that I have done it before in the past, so I can do it again. So just channeling my inner strength and reminding myself of the stories of the other Olympians I have met. That is how I stay confident.

MM: Who inspires you?

MC: Besides Natalie [Coughlin], Kara Lynn [Joyce], and Josh Davis… I’d say my mom. When I was born and diagnosed with OI, I can’t imagine how scary that was for her and how hard that was for her to go through. I also think a lot about how scary it must have been for her to put me in the water for the first time. But she has always been the one telling me to go for my dreams and to not be afraid to try new things. So, she really inspires me and without her I would not be where I am today. And I would not have done any of the things I have achieved in my career. It has been her encouragement and telling me I can do anything I set my mind to.

MM: How have you dealt with stressful meet day situations in the past and how did you deal with that pressure?

MC: Dealing with pressure can be kind of scary. I have been so lucky to work with a sports psychologist, but it never goes away, you know. I think it applies to every level swimmer at level every meet there might be pressure mounting on you. So, I have chosen since Rio to turn this pressure into something positive. And if someone says I can’t do something and taking that and turning it into something that is positive along with keeping track of all the hard work I have done to remind myself. So, focusing on the positives instead of the negatives.

MM: How have you dealt with adversity in your career and what did you tell yourself to combat that?

MC: I think it’s really interesting being an athlete that has a disorder like mine is that, out of nowhere, over the course of my career something can go wrong, and I can have a broken shoulder or femur or whatever. I am saying it’s not easy to deal with it, but how I deal with pressure is I look at it in a positive way and rather than a negative. I have learned from a very young age if something goes wrong to face it and to deal with it instead of shy away from it. So, if I break my shoulder, I am going to get back into the water and kick. Or say I break my femur, I am going to give it a week and get back into the water and pull. I think that you can look at adversity in a number of different ways, but I choose look at it as a positive. The thing that could stop me, I choose to let it inspire me. I think that if I can do this with a broken femur, I can do anything. So, no matter what you are facing, there is a way to get around it, you just have to have a positive mindset.

MM: What do you want to say to the next generation of young women dreamers?

MC: If anyone can take anything away from my story, I hope that they take away that whatever you are facing you can find a way to get through it. You can do what you love no matter who tells you you can’t or shouldn’t be. You can do whatever you set your mind to and you can deal with that you are facing. So that is what I hope these young girls can take from my message. You can do whatever you set your mind to and those limits can only be set by yourself.

Rapid Fire:  

MM: Name one women who embodies confidence.

MC: Hillary Clinton

MM: Who was your role model at age ten?

MC: Elle Woods [from Legally Blonde], funny enough.

MM: What music do you listen to on meet day?

MC: I love pop music and rap, so it just depends on how I am feeling.

MM: Favorite way to relax?

MC: Reading and spending time with friends.

MM: Starbucks order?

MC: Grande white chocolate mocha.