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Clarkesville's McKenzie Coan earns spot on US Paralympic Team to swim in Rio Summer Games
McKenzie Coan swims in the US Paralympic Team Trials last month in Charlotte, N.C. - photo by For The Times

Beginning in August, some of the greatest athletes on the planet will descend on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in attempt to bring home Olympic hardware for their home country. For nearly two weeks in September, the best para-athletes from across the world will, too, compete in Rio as the Paralympics takes place Sept. 7-18.

One of those aiming for a podium spot in the Paralympics is Clarkesville’s McKenzie Coan.

Coan, who competed in the 2012 London Games as a 16 year old, is headed back for her second attempt at gold.

“Each time is really exciting,” Coan said. “I might actually be more excited for the second time. I kind of know what I’m going into and the atmosphere there.”

Coan will be swimming the S7 (a 1-10 scale of physical disability to ensure equal Paralympic competition) 100-meter backstroke on Sept. 8, 50 freestyle on Sept. 9, S7 50 butterfly on Sept. 12, S7 400 freestyle on Sept. 14 and S7 100 freestyle on Sept. 16. Coan may also be swimming in the 400 freestyle relay on Sept. 15, but that isn’t a guaranteed spot yet.

The 20-year-old swimmer was born with a disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), meaning her bones are prone to breaking, often from little or no apparent cause. She also has scoliosis.

This time around, Coan said she knows what to expect and shouldn’t be overwhelmed competing on the biggest stage.

“Last time, London, was my first really big international competition,” Coan said. “Of course I was really excited, but it was really overwhelming, but in a good way. You can go to as many international and national competitions as you want, but nothing compares to the (Paralympic) Games.”

Coan said she found out she would be heading to Rio on June 3, about 18 hours after the hopefuls finished trials in Charlotte.

The trials, according to Coan, can be more stressful than the Games themselves.

“We’re such a good country that it’s tough,” Coan said. “You spend your life training for the Games, but you have to make the team first.”

She made it through the Trials and made the team.

The US Trials don’t necessarily determine who makes the team. According to Coan, it all depends on the swimmers’ rankings.

When the U.S. Paralympic personnel gathered the hopefuls into a room to announce those who made it, Coan said it was a nerve-wracking process.

“It’s crazy because there’s a lot of buildup,” Coan said. “They played a video of Rio and then announce it. You don’t hear anything else in that moment. I was just waiting to hear my name. I couldn’t have told you who made the team in that brief two minutes because I didn’t hear anything else.”

When she finally did hear her name, “It was the biggest relief of my life,” she said.

Coan’s family — Teresa, her mother, Marc, her father, and her two brothers, Eli and Grant — will all be making the trip to Rio. Teresa, Mark and Eli were also able to make the trip to London in 2012.

Those London Games changed McKenzie’s take on seeing the American flag raised and the national anthem played.

“When we won our first gold medal and you heard the national anthem and saw the flag go up, that was really motivating,” Coan said. “Once you hear the national anthem that way and see the flag go up for that, you never hear it the same way. I’m really excited to hear that national anthem again.”

Coan swam the 400 free and came in sixth in the finals in London. The thought of leaving Rio with a medal is something she said is hard for her to put into words.

“Besides making the team, the last four years have been about trying to get back to the Games,” Coan said. “I may not talk about it a lot, but, in the back of my mind, my goal is to get on a podium spot in Rio. I’ve worked my whole life for that, so it would be amazing.

“It would be something for my family as well. It’s not just me. They’ve given up a lot for me. For me to bring that back for them — they’ve been a big part of this, that’d be great.”