A Summer Health Setback Helped McKenzie Coan Learn To Put The Human Ahead Of The Swimmer
by Karen Price
You might think that after three Paralympics and six medals, four of them gold, that swimmer McKenzie Coan wouldn’t have the same fire to compete that she had when she was first starting out.
But you would be absolutely wrong.
After a medical ordeal that forced her to withdraw from the world championships this summer, Coan is perhaps even more driven than ever to represent the U.S. in Paris next summer.
“Going out and winning medals makes me so proud, and representing our country makes me so proud, but I never look at it as, ‘OK, you’ve got your medals, what else is there to do?’” she said. “That’s never how it is. I’m always wanting more. If you went back and told 16-year-old McKenzie at her first Games that she’d be here going into another year with a chance of making her fourth Games I’d probably have told you you were crazy. But every time is like the first time. I’m just as hungry, and nothing would make me prouder.”
Coan is no stranger to physical setbacks. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, she’s dealt with broken bones too many times to count, but this summer was a whole different animal. The 27-year-old was preparing for her fifth world championships this June when she developed a respiratory infection that turned into an ear infection. Antibiotics weren’t helping, and after one practice she felt so lousy that she went to urgent care for the third time since she first got sick. The doctors couldn’t find anything new and surmised that her body was probably just exhausted from training through the illness.
She went home and went to sleep.
When she woke up the next morning, the left side of her face was paralyzed.
“It was kind of terrifying,” she said. “I thought I was having a stroke. Like, oh no, please no.”
Coan called her boyfriend and they went to the emergency room, and within an hour they had — thankfully — ruled out a stroke. Coan was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a neurological disorder that causes paralysis or weakness on one side of the face. Its cause is unknown, but doctors believe it’s the result of inflammation affecting the immune system.
“I couldn’t move my mouth at all, couldn’t open or close my left eye, couldn’t breathe out of my left nostril, couldn’t hear out of my left ear,” Coan said. “My whole left side of my face wasn’t functioning. They put a pin in the side of my face, and I couldn’t tell you where they put it. They told me only a small percent will never heal from it, but that it was a real possibility.”
Coan being Coan, she showed up to the pool for practice two days later.
She hadn’t thought about just how hard swimming would be. Because she couldn’t blink, she had to use eye drops every few minutes. She couldn’t do that wearing goggles. The water would go up her left nostril and into her mouth since she couldn’t close it properly, and she’d start to choke.
Determined to still make it to worlds, she started acupuncture and physical therapy three times a week. She’d look for any little sign she could find that she was getting better, even if it was just being able to open or close her mouth a fraction more than she could the day before. She would take selfies so she could compare from day to day.
She decided that the 400-meter freestyle probably wasn’t in the cards for world championships, but she could still push through the 100-meter and the 50-meter.
Days before the team was to leave for Manchester, England, Coan went to her coach and told him of her plan to compete in the shorter distances.
“I gave this big speech and I finished my spiel and I looked at him and his face was completely blank and I’m thinking wow, I had a different idea of how this was going to go,” she said. “He looked at me and said something that was important for me to hear. He told me that I’m a human being first, and a swimmer second, and he asked me what it was going to do for me to go to worlds and suffer through the 100 and the 50. It struck me that I’d only been thinking about McKenzie the swimmer, and not whether in the long term this was going to benefit me or hurt me.”
As wrenching as it was to have to withdraw from the world championships, the good news is that Coan is on the upswing. She feels like she’s at about 90 percent, and U.S. Paralympics Swimming recently named her as part of the team that will travel to Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, in November.
“It would be a bit of redemption to go to Parapans,” she said ahead of the announcement. “It’s interesting because I’m not bitter (about the Bell’s palsy) because I learned so much about myself. It was a good reminder that yes, I’m an athlete, but I’m also McKenzie and my health matters. My mental health matters. And I need to be able to protect that to be at my absolute best. So it’s something I look at as a blessing in disguise. When you go through something difficult out of the water, you come back and appreciate it more.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.