Can A Wheelchair User Have A Career in Sports?
An Interview With Paralympian McKenzie Coan
McKenzie Coan has won 4 medals in 2 Paralympic games. She is currently living in Colorado at the US Olympic Training Center, preparing to compete in the Paralympic Games in Japan in August 2021. But she kindly took the time to do this interview with us, which we conducted by email.
Tell us about your daily life. How many hours per week do you "work" (including training, preparing, speaking, interviews, etc)?
- Per week, I typically average about 20-22 hours in the pool between 9 practices. In addition, I'm also in the weight room a couple of hours a week. I also work part-time and do speaking engagements and interviews regularly, which keeps me pretty busy, but I love the fast pace of my life. I always say I wouldn't know what to do if I had a great deal of free time.
Do you have much free time? What do you like to do in your free time?
- With the Games just on the horizon and work keeping me busy, I wouldn't say that I have a great deal of free time. Still, I try to carve out time here and there to do the things I love outside of training and work because I think it would be easy to keep going nonstop and eventually burn out. My favorite thing to do outside of swimming and working is reading. My degree is in political science, so I love anything that has to do with politics or ancient political philosophy like Aristotle or Plato. I also really love getting outside, especially being here in Colorado. There are so many incredible national parks and areas to get out and experience nature.
Are you able to support yourself entirely through your athletic career, or do you have another job?
- I am fortunate that I can fully support myself through my athletic career. I know that is not the case for very many Paralympic athletes. I do work part-time at my alma mater, Loyola University Maryland. I have recently been accepted to law school and will be attending Rutgers Law School in Newark, NJ, in 2022. So, the opportunity to gain valuable experience in an office space and within the realm of work I would like to do as a lawyer has been invaluable to my professional and personal growth. It also provides a nice balance to my life outside of my athletic career.
Is it rare for a disabled athlete to be able to support themselves via their sport?
- Sadly, it is very rare for a Paralympic athlete to support themselves off of athletics alone. Paralympic athletes, more than ever today, are getting increased exposure and brand opportunities. However, I feel those opportunities are still at a fraction of those offered to our Olympic counterparts. I feel very fortunate for the many wonderful opportunities I have been able to take advantage of in my career, many due to the extraordinary work of my agent, Cejih Yung, of CG Sports Company. When I was done with my NCAA eligibility back in 2018, I was worried that I would never be able to find representation, even after winning three gold medals at the Rio Games back in 2016. In my first meeting with Cejih, I knew that he would be the one to take my career and brand as far as I knew it could go, and I am so thankful that I get to work with such an amazing company. It's a dream come true to work with my incredible sponsorships - Adidas, LendingTree, and Numotion.
How did you meet your agent? Did he seek you out? Or did you seek him out?
- After I was done with my NCAA eligibility, my Mom and I actually reached out to two different agencies via email, and we got a response almost immediately from CG Sports Company. We set up our first meeting with Cejih within just a couple of days of reaching out to him. In truth, I was nervous reaching out to any agent because I didn't know how I would be perceived as a Paralympic athlete. Even with two games under my belt and three gold medals to my name, I was genuinely worried that I wouldn't find an agent that wanted to represent me, and it bothers me that I even felt that way back then, but that was the reality of it. Though, right away, Cejih took away any of that anxiety. During that phone call, Cejih asked me what my goals were and what I saw for my brand, and I knew that it would be a great partnership. It is still hard for me to rationalize just how nervous I was about being a Paralympic athlete looking for representation. With CG Sports Company and the now many Paralympic athletes represented through CG Sports, I hope that other para-athletes won't be nervous at first to reach out. I hope the landscape is changing for them, as more of us are out there receiving exposure.
What steps would you recommend for a wheelchair user who aspires to become a professional athlete?
- First and foremost, I would say to get out and find what you love to do. Do you love being in the water? Do you love the idea of playing basketball on a wheelchair basketball team? Do you enjoy being on the ice and want to try sled hockey? Research the opportunities and reach out to local adaptive sports clubs and take advantage of the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the Paralympic movement from a beginner stage. After that, keep practicing, keep pushing yourself to show up day after day, and most importantly, never allow anyone to tell you that you can't achieve or pursue your ultimate goals.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you years ago before you became a professional athlete?
- I feel like there's this misconception about turning to a pro athlete that you somehow lose the love you had for your sport because somehow being paid for what you do is like selling your soul. People tell you to be careful and remember why you started in the first place. However, in my experience, since becoming a professional athlete, I've been blessed with many opportunities to reach out to people and young athletes to share my story with them. These opportunities to connect with others have reminded me of how much I love what I do and made me appreciate it that much more. I think people will always want to give you unsolicited advice before making a big life decision, like setting out to become a professional athlete. Still, I would say never to let anyone says scare you out of pursuing your dreams - I wish someone had told me that when I set out to become a professional athlete.
How long do you think you will be a professional athlete? Do you have plans for your career after you retire?
- I would like to keep swimming as long as possible because I love training and the adrenaline of racing. I plan to continue through the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles. As I continue through my swimming career these next few years, I will be in law school, so after I retire, I will be focused entirely on my career as a lawyer.
Who inspires you?
- So many people inspire me both in athletics and in other realms of life. Though, I would say that I feel most inspired by those that I've had the opportunity to meet through the work with my foundation, "Kenzie Kares" So many of the kids and families I've been fortunate enough to connect with are up against some challenging situations. Yet, they never let It control or overcome them. I've learned so much just from hearing their stories and overcoming some of the most incredible odds, and they inspire me daily to keep going against whatever I'm facing.
I understand that you have Osteogenesis Imperfecta and have broken over 60 bones. But are you a full time wheelchair user?
- I do have Osteogenesis Imperfecta, and I utilize my wheelchair as my primary means of mobility. I can walk short distances, but I get tired very quickly and prefer my wheelchair to get the most out of my daily life.
You are a spokesperson for NuMotion. I guess your pretty pink wheelchair is from them? What other wheelchairs have you used?
- Being a spokesperson with such a great company like Numotion has been a blessing. I feel fortunate to have access to such a professional and extraordinary team of mobility device experts. I love my pink chair, but I also have a red one from them that I use for work and other professional engagements - It's nice to change things up now and then!
Have you done anything to customize the look of your wheelchair? For example, with lights or color coordinated accessories?
- I used to have light-up wheels on the front. Nowadays, I have to go for really fun colors like my pink chair - which pink is my power color, so it's a must-have for me!
Tell us about your work with "Kenzie Kares"? I believe that there are a few different organizations with similar sounding names. How is yours different?
- I started 'Kenzie Kares' back in high school, and It's so special to me because the idea came from my own experiences of being in and out of the hospital every couple of months as a child. I wanted the give kids the opportunity to get excited abo0ut something and take their minds off of whatever they were facing. That joy of going in and meeting all of these extraordinary families and kids is the thing that keeps me going today. I would say what sets my organization apart is the personal touches that go into every hospital visit, from the toys and color books we hand out to the one on one time with the kids and their families - I want them to know they're not alone in what they're going through. I understand even from outside the hospitals the ups and downs that they go through.
Breaking Free -- Shattering Expectations and Thriving with Ambition in Pursuit of Gold" is McKenzie's swimming story, but it is also a story of grit, athleticism, achievement, sportsmanship, disability, family, humor, and hope.