Why Mindfulness Matters with McKenzie Coan

Three-time Paralympic gold medalist McKenzie Coan talks about living with a debilitating illness and how it has helped to shape a mindset geared towards overcoming adversity.

Swimmer McKenzie Coan has three Paralympic and four World Championship gold medals under her belt. She also has osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), a condition which makes her bones very susceptible to breaking. Diagnosed when she was 19 days old, her parents were told that she would never sit up, walk or talk.

Despite these odds, she started swimming at the age of four. She went on to compete at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio and was on track to defend her titles at the Tokyo Paralympics, until the Games were postponed.

As Paralympic athletes, it feels like we’ve had a part of ourselves ripped away…

I woke up to a text from my coach when the postponement was confirmed. While I know it was absolutely the right decision, it still struck me. I took a moment to breathe, think things through and let it simmer for a moment, before going right into my reframing and planning mode. I remember sitting there and asking myself, “of all the adversity I’ve faced in my life, how am I going to approach this challenge?”

When I’m dealing with something difficult, I often remind myself of all the things that I’ve been through and all the challenges I’ve faced in my life. I think I’ve probably broken over 100 bones, so take a note from my book – I can promise you that you’ll always come out better for it on the other side.

As much as it hurts, it’s all for the best right now. We’re going to get through this and when we all come back together sport is going to be even more powerful than before, because it will mean so much more to the world.

The defining moment in my life came from a time of great hardship…

The way I approach adversity comes from the experiences I had during an operation back in 2008. I’ve been in hospital countless times, but on this one occasion it was particularly hard. There were lots of complications and the recovery was really difficult. I was only supposed to be in hospital overnight, but I ended up staying there for probably what was the scariest week of my entire life.

My condition was touch and go at times. I was in excruciating pain and wasn’t responding to the medication I was given. I remember the sound of alarms going off and the machines I was hooked up to. I was in and out of consciousness quite a bit, but I vividly remember a dream I had about swimming. I remember thinking “I’m not done here. There’s so much more left for me to do, I don’t want to go.”

I remember, at that moment, choosing to not be defeated. I was going to fight through this. Little by little, I got better, and we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Since then, every time I’ve broken a bone, been through surgery or got sick during treatment, I’ve reminded myself of what I went through back then. I tell myself to keep going, that each day will get better. I’ve learned to push my way through these situations.

People think that big muscles and a strong physique are the greatest benefits in sport…

…but I actually think mental strength is the most incredible thing that we can all develop through sport. All athletes have experienced injuries and setbacks and I think the lessons you learn during these times can be applied to anything, especially right now. You develop the ability to persevere through hardship.

There are going to be times when all you see are barriers. You’re going to experience some pain, but you have it in you to get through this. You have to have self-belief and self-compassion. For me, I choose to be mentally strong. I cannot thank swimming enough for making me mentally strong.

Things will get better…

…you have to have hope and belief that you’re going to get there. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, and we all have difficult days. We’re all social beings and it’s hard when we feel like there’s no one there to support us, but even though we’re separated physically, we are more together than we have ever been before.

I fully believe that next year, in Tokyo, will be the time that we all come together and celebrate. I think it will be one big party following these tough times and that is what is getting me through every single day.