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Local swimmer overcoming physical limitations

Coan aiming for 2012 London Paralympic Games

POSTED: June 25, 2011 6:50 p.m.

Aiming for the Paralympics

Sara Guevara/The Times

McKenzie Coan, 15, is currently training in the hopes of participating in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Coan swims daily despite being diagnosed with Osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition causing extremely fragile bones.

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McKenzie Coan's infectious smile is remarkable considering the amount of physical pain she's had to endure in her life.

Born with a genetic condition that weakens her bones, the home-schooled high school sophomore from Clarkesville has endured at least 30 confirmed fractures and more painful surgeries than any child should have to experience.

It is that condition, known as Osteogenesis Imperfecta, that keeps Coan bound to a wheelchair when she's on land.

But in the water, there's no sign of the long scars down the side of each leg where doctors have inserted metal rods on three separate occasions.

Coan learned at a young age that her physical disability would prevent her from walking and running like other kids, but in the water she was on an even playing field.

So it is in the pool that every day she practices, gliding through the water with long, powerful strokes under the tutelage of her mother, Teresa.

"Swimming is such a blessing in my life and so much fun," Coan said. "Physically, mentally, emotionally, it's like a stress reliever."

She's also got big dreams for where swimming can take her. Right now, everything is centered around getting into the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

To get there, she's willing to put in long hours at the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center in Gainesville or with a club team, the Cumming Waves.

During the past year, she's traveled to Minnesota, Texas, Illinois and California, to name a few, all to improve her ranking and get one step closer to the Paralympic qualifier.

She swims everything from the 100 freestyle to the one-mile, and set national records last summer in the 400 meter freestyle (5:42.75) and 100 meter individual medley (1:40.86).

She's also working to become a formidable opponent in the one-mile. When she started in 2009, she was finishing around the 24-minute mark. Then she got to the point when she could break 22.

Now, the goal by the middle of 2012 is to come in under 21 minutes.

"I've never seen anyone like her before," said Barbara Robins, a club coach for the Cumming Waves and the mother of one of Coan's close friends. "McKenzie has the most
positive outlook on life."

This summer, Coan and her family have the Speedo Can-Am Para-Swimming Championships from July 15-17 in Gastineau, Quebec circled on the calendar. If things go well there, she'll be set to for the paralympic trials in April 2012 in Minnesota.

Regardless of the outcome in Quebec, Coan has come a long way since being diagnosed with Osteogenesis Imperfecta at 19 days old after breaking a leg while being burped.

Doctors recommended the Coans take her to a geneticist, which is where the family received the news of the brittle-bones condition.

At six months old, Coan wasn't faring any better. Her mother said that her head would lay to the side without much movement.

That's when the family met physical therapist Colleen O'Berry, who they consider a blessing. O'Berry put Coan on a proactive plan to allow the young girl to live as normal of a life as possible.

O'Berry wasn't going to let Coan be treated like she was disabled.

"Colleen said, ‘you can put her on a shelf or let her live,'" Teresa Coan said.

Even though the surgeries continued as McKenzie got older, she never got bitter. When she was placed in a body suit that went from her chest to her feet for 6-8 weeks after surgery, she didn't complain.

To maintain her strength, McKenzie continued to lift dumbbells while in a body suit following surgery to re-insert her metal rods.

And she doesn't shy away from swimming, even though there is risk for injury every time she gets into the pool.

Once, she broke her back going into a flip turn at the wall. Her most recent fracture occurred when she jumped up in bed during a dream.

Everyday occurrences as minor as a sneeze, a cough or a hiccup can result in fractures.

But Coan decided when she got into swimming at age 9 that she wasn't going to let her disability keep her from living and having fun.

"McKenzie could be down and depressed about her condition, but she's got just the opposite outlook," O'Berry said. "With swimming, it has really increased her strength and decreased her risk of fractures."

Coan said her parents have always been honest with her about her physical limitations and what to expect: Many people with Osteogenesis Imperfecta lose their hearing in their 20s.

And they left it up to McKenzie to chart her own path.

She decided she was going to do everything possible.
She's been a girl scout. She's been on a bicycle and gone canoeing. She's also enjoyed amusement parks, but doesn't ride the roller coasters due to a fear of heights.

Coan's family is also heavily invested in her swimming ventures. Teresa Coan has put 250,000 miles on the 2005 family minivan, mostly from driving to daily practice and meets in different corners of the country.

"Traveling has been one of the biggest blessings that has come with swimming and all the people we get to meet," McKenzie said. "Everyone has been so nice and I've never met anyone that's been rude to me."

"She's never met a stranger," her mother said.

Through all McKenzie has faced, the Coan family has found its identity.

Her older brother Grant, who recently graduated from the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, will go to Georgia Tech in the fall, and eventually plans to attend medical school.

Teresa said he wants to go into pediatric orthopedics to help other physically disabled children. Medicine runs in the family. Their father, Marc Coan, is a physician with the Toccoa Clinic in Stephens County.

Even McKenzie's 12-year-old brother Eli looks up to big sister for what she's overcome.

"She's always been good motivation," he said. "She's a very strong person."

In some ways, though, she's just like any other athlete focused on a goal.

On the walls in her room, Coan keeps lists of the goals she wants to achieve. Each time she reaches a goal, she grabs a pen and marks it off.

Each goal crossed off brings her closer to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and proves yet again the depth of the young girl's talent and the strength of her determination.

"McKenzie is such a motivation for everyone around here," Teresa said. "She always says, ‘we're all equal in the pool.'"

 



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