When junior McKenzie Coan returned from the Rio Paralympics to resume her education at Loyola University Maryland a few weeks ago, she was not ready for the reception she received.
“Everywhere on campus, everyone knew who I was,” she recalls. “It seemed like everybody couldn't wait to come up to me and congratulate me. It took me a lot longer to go from class to class than it used to.”
She laughs when she admits that she enjoys the attention, explaining “It is really cool. It can be a little embarrassing, but I've made a lot of new friends.”
Coan didn't realize that while she was away in Rio de Janeiro winning four medals for Team USA, her picture was all over the television stations, newspapers and web sites back in the United States. Video highlights were shown on many television networks.
In her absence, she became a celebrity.
Even after she came back to Baltimore, it seemed she was everywhere. One day she was on the field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, throwing out the first pitch,. A few days later, she was in Washington, D.C. visiting President Obama.
Coan went to Rio as one of 34 members of the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Team Like so many others, she had high hopes of earning a medal or two.
“We trained really hard,” she said. “There were five of us working with Coach (Brian) Loeffler. Before we went to Rio, Coach sat down with me and told me that there was a chance I could win a gold medal and maybe even two. I didn't think too much about it because I thought he was just trying to motivate me.”
Loeffler added, “"I could tell by the way she was training that she had a chance to win gold in the 50-free, the 100-free and the 200-free. I also felt she might get a spot on the 400-free relay. I thought the times that she was swimming in our practice sessions would put her near the top."
Once Coan arrived in Rio with her teammates and her coach, she wasted no time in making a name for herself. In her first event on the first day of the competition, she swam in the 50 freestyle.
“I've always been better at swimming the distance races,” Coan said. “However, I stunned myself by winning the 50 free. Then, I was really shocked because I broke the Paralympic record (32.42). Looking at the replay, I see myself staring at the scoreboard as if I thought there was a mistake.”
When she received her gold medal and stood on the podium listening to the Star Spangled Banner, she recalled the incredible feeling.
Her most memorable moment of the Paralympics came after that race when she was allowed to bring her parents and two brothers to the Olympic Village.
She said, “It was difficult to get passes, but I was allowed to let them come in. I will never forget what my mother told me. She said, 'Enjoy the rest of this event. The pressure is off you now. Anything else you do is icing on the cake.'”
Over the next few days, Coan added enough icing to start her own bakery.
In her second event, she won the 100 freestyle with a time of 1:09.99 for her second gold medal, and she earned her third in her final individual event, she finished first the 400 freestyle in 5:05.72, almost 13 seconds ahead of the runner-up.
Coan received one of her most impressive honors when she was selected to swim on Team USA's 400-free relay. She explained, “It meant a lot to me because I was chosen to swim by the Team USA coaches. They had watched me swim in those three races and picked me to be part of the relay team.”
She swam the lead off leg of the 400-medley relay and earned her fourth medal of the Paralympics, a silver. Coan and the United States team swam the second-fastest time in world history only to be bested by the Australian entry.
Coan started swimming at the age of five as therapy for osteogenesis, more commonly known as brittle bone disease; now, she credits Loeffler with much of her success.
“I first met Coach Loeffler at the Paralympic Games in London,” she said. “I was a junior in high school and I got to know him. When it came time to time to pick a college, I asked him about Loyola and made a campus visit. I really liked their academics and athletics mix. It was the first place I visited and it was a smart decision for me. Everyone made me feel very comfortable here and it is such a great opportunity for me to swim for an NCAA Division I program. It has become my second home.
“He is a tremendous coach with a great eye for detail,” she adds. “One of the main reasons I won those medals was the training program he implemented leading into Rio.”
The Clarksville, Georgia, native has only one regret about her experience in Rio. She missed three weeks of classes and fell behind. She says with a smile, “I am catching up in most off my classes but there is one class where I am still behind. I am tempted to walk into the exam we have coming up, placing my gold medal on the professor's desk and asking 'how many points of extra credit is this worth?'”
Three of her four medals are locked away at her parents' house in Georgia. The gold medal that she won for the 50-free is located in a safe on the Loyola campus.
"It is always special for a coach when one of their athletes does something special like that,” Loeffler said. “It was really great, especially because her family was there. As exciting as it was to watch her win the medals, the medal ceremony is even more thrilling. It was wonderful to watch McKenzie get her medals for the United State while the National Anthem is being played."
Coan confesses she was more nervous throwing out the first pitch before the Baltimore Orioles' home game in late September.
“There is a reason I am a swimmer,” she laments. “I can't throw a ball, so, now I am out there in front of more than 30,000 people and I have to throw the ball 60 feet to the catcher. I was so happy when I reached the catcher without the ball hitting the ground.
“It was really neat. They let us stay on the field as the Orioles ran out to their positions during the National Anthem. Then, we went up to the luxury boxes to watch the game.”
Looking back, Coan will always cherish her time in Brazil.
“There were so many positives about the entire experience,” she said. “The venues were spectacular and the village was great. The most impressive thing about Rio was the people. They were so nice and so happy to see us. When we were swimming, we were surprised at the enthusiasm the people had. It didn't matter what nation you represented. These fans were really into it and so loud and supportive. I will never forget it.”