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The home games: 4. McKenzie Coan

Kevin C Cox/Getty Images

McKenzie Coan, swimmer
Georgia, US

Fittingly for an athlete who spends much of her time in the water, McKenzie Coan is from the ‘glass half-full’ school of thought. Instead of defending her three gold medals in Tokyo, the 24-year-old Paralympian is instead holed up in her parents’ house in Georgia. “I think we all had this idea of what this year was going to be like, but clearly things didn’t turn out that way,” she says, before finding that silver lining. “Still, my parents have an aquatic centre in their garage now.”

In early March, Coan was training at her base in Baltimore. As Covid-19 infection rates rose and lockdowns looked likely, it seemed she would be seeing out the crisis alone in Maryland and without access to a pool to train in. Deciding that wasn’t an option for an athlete who “lives to swim”, her mum drove a 20-hour round trip to bring McKenzie home. Then the family set about creating that petroleum-scented aquatic centre. “They installed a 16-foot pool in the garage,” says Coan. “It is a tethered pool, so I get in, I strap myself to this belt that’s attached to a pole and I can swim again.”

Coan is more vulnerable to the virus than most. She has osteogenesis imperfecta, a condition which leaves her bones susceptible to breaks and her lungs at greater risk of infection. “When I do have respiratory infections, they often end up being a little bit more severe than a normal person getting sick,” she says. “It’s scary being a person who is at risk, but also being an athlete trying to figure out how to stay safe while I continue training going into next year.”

The situation is further complicated by the fact that her dad is a doctor on the front line of America’s Covid-19 battle. “My dad is the bravest person I’ve ever met,” says Coan. “I’m afraid because he’s going in and he’s around these poor people who are so sick, but I’m also really proud of him because he’s helping them.”

Coan believes her condition has given her the mental strength to cope with the disappointment of the postponement of Tokyo 2020. “My life has prepared me for this,” she says. “I don’t get to choose when I break a bone, and I’ve had a lot of times when I’ve been on the sidelines. I see what we’re all dealing with now as a bigger version of that. I look at adversity as probably our greatest weapon. I think it’s what makes us who we are. So I’m in an even better place heading into next year now. I feel like I’m a completely different athlete and I know I’m a stronger human being.”

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